By Nan Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Submitted January 2000
Summary: Picking up in the aftermath of the author's "Doppleganger," it's just another day in the life of Lois and Clark when Lois is kidnapped and Clark is incapacitated by a deadly Kryptonite spray … but will this day prove to be their last?
This story is part of Nan Smith's "Dagger" series. See a list of all the stories in this series and get links.
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Countdown. Need the previous story? Read Doppleganger.
This story occurred to me while watching "The Eyes Have It", and it seemed to me the whole situation had a lot of potential for a completely different story, so I wrote it!
I'd like to thank Pam Jernigan for her help in working out a number of details and for a great many suggestions, some of which I adopted, and some of which sparked other ideas that wound up in the story. Similar thanks go to Joy Sowell for her suggestions as well, to Tank for his information about Bibbo's, and a general thank-you goes to those who gave me some very useful constructive criticism on the Message Boards. (That's why I usually post there first! FoLCs are *very* inventive people!)
This story is the sequel to Doppelganger, and takes place starting a couple of days later.
The recognizable characters and settings in this story are the property of D.C. Comics, Warner Bros., December Third Productions, et. al. No infringement on anyone's copyright is intended. The story, however, is copyrighted to me.
Lois Lane ducked into an alley and crouched as far down behind the shadowy form of a dumpster as she could. The footsteps of her pursuers were muffled by the pounding rain, but she knew they were there. If she escaped, the career of the man who had imprisoned her was doomed; he knew she would discover his identity, and never rest until she had brought him down.
That was why she had risked everything to escape him. He thought she knew something she didn't, and he needed to find out what it was, and if she had any evidence. But he would never have let her go. As soon as he determined that she knew nothing, and had no files of information, her life would have ended. He simply could not afford for anyone to suspect who he was—and Lois had far too many incriminating clues. She had to be silenced.
Her two pursuers reached the mouth of the alley. She could see their silhouettes against the faint light of the street lamps. Lightning slashed across the sky, followed by a crash of thunder that literally shook the ground. That was a close one!
The rain drummed ceaselessly down in a torrent so heavy it was hard to breathe. Lois tried to keep still, unmoving, one more shadow among the many. She was soaked to the skin, and shaking with hunger, fatigue and cold. She tried to control her panting breath; amid the downpour it might not be heard, but of that she couldn't be sure.
The footsteps of the two men sloshed closer. The alley was under at least an inch of water, which ran past her in a rush down the slight incline. Her hair straggled in her face in limp strings.
The pursuers were getting close. Lois squinted her eyes against the falling water. Could they see her? She didn't think so, but she couldn't be sure. The bulky shadow of one of them loomed up in front of her, blocking out the faint light altogether. Their eyes met with an almost audible click.
Lois lunged at him. Her shoulder took him in the pit of the stomach. The breath tore out of him in a strangled grunt; he went down, curled into an agonized ball on the flooded pavement and Lois sucked air into her lungs. If Clark didn't come, it was all over.
"Help, Superman! Help!"
The second man was approaching, and the faint light reflected off of the revolver in his hand.
A wet "swoosh" of air; a large body plummeted to earth almost on top of the man, who stumbled back. He raised the weapon and fired. Lois ducked behind her husband.
Superman didn't catch the bullets in his usual fashion. They ricocheted from his chest in every direction, bouncing off the brick walls of the buildings on either side. Lois flung herself flat in the water-filled alley, covering her head as a projectile whined past, inches from her face. A shriek of panic was almost drowned in the echoes of the shot, and Lois heard the splashing footsteps of a running man.
"Lois?" Superman's voice sounded panicky. "Lois, are you all right?"
"Yeah," she muttered. She got to her feet, muddy rivulets running down her face. She couldn't possibly get any wetter but, darn it, that water was *cold*! "Why didn't you catch the bullets, Superman? They almost hit me!"
He cocked his head. "There's someone else here."
"One of the men who was chasing me. I…oh, my God…"
He had turned toward her, and the answers to her questions were immediately apparent. His brown eyes stared past her, unfocussed.
Superman hadn't caught the bullets for one simple reason. He couldn't see them.
"Superman?" she began, but he put out a hand, feeling for her face, and touched his fingers lightly to her lips. She broke off at once. The man she had felled, who was now groaning and gasping as he tried to struggle to his feet, must not find out about this no matter what. She took Clark's hand and gently guided it until he could grasp a water-logged sleeve.
Clark took a firm grip on her erstwhile pursuer's upper arm, and held out his other hand for Lois. He wrapped his arm about her waist, and a moment later they were in the air, moving with relative slowness. Judging by the panicked screams, their prisoner wasn't going to notice anything odd about Superman's behavior.
They had to get to the police station, Lois thought, as she pressed her shivering body tightly against his equally wet, but very warm one. She needed to find out what had happened.
56 Hours Ago…
Lois Lane put down the phone and turned to look at her husband and partner, Clark Kent, who was typing furiously away at his keyboard, putting the finishing touches on their follow-up to the Lex Luthor clone story.
The expression on his face would have been hard to read by anyone who didn't know him well. Clark was a past master in the art of hiding his real emotions and thoughts behind a pleasant mask.
Lois, of course, had a deeper insight into his feelings from the very masks he put on to cover them. Clark was unhappy with his subject matter. Lex Luthor, original or clone, free or in prison, wasn't a pleasant concept for him. The fact that he was presently in jail and under indictment for murder, attempted murder, assault, abduction, extortion, false imprisonment, arson and as many other crimes as the district attorney could think of with which to charge him, didn't help. Lex Luthor was alive, and that was bad enough. The fact that this Lex Luthor didn't know Clark's other identity was about the only bright spot in the whole mess. Clark was clearly not a happy camper.
Well, at least she had something with which to cheer him up.
Lois got to her feet and walked over to put her hands on his shoulders. "Hi, honey."
"Hi." He turned his head and the smile he reserved only for her lit his face. "Feeling any better?"
She nodded. "That herbal tea you fixed for me helped a lot. Maybe we should market it."
Clark's smile became a grin of amusement.
"Anyway," Lois continued, "that was the clinic calling back."
His expression became more alert. "And?"
"And it looks like you'd better arrange to see Dr. Klein in the not too distant future. Something certainly went wrong with his tests. We're the living proof."
His grin widened and he spun his chair around to wrap his arms around her waist. "I've never been so happy about failing a test in my life."
Lois slapped him lightly on the shoulder. "I'd say you *passed* the test…with *flying* colors!"
"Well," he said, with mock-gravity, "I practiced long and hard for it…" He broke off as Lois whacked the top of his head with one hand. "Well, I *did*!"
"You don't have to brag about it!"
"Passed what test?" Ralph paused by Clark's desk on his way to the coffee machine. "You trying to steal a march on the rest of us, Kent?"
Lois fixed her co-worker with a frosty stare. "It's an inside joke," she told him. Ralph had been in Lois's bad graces for the last three months, ever since he'd had the poor judgement to rib them about their adoption of CJ, with the insinuation that it was somehow her fault for being unable to give Clark a child.
Ralph didn't take the hint. "Come on, Kent, give. What test?"
Clark glanced warily at Lois and turned back to Ralph. "It's private, Ralph," he said firmly, with just a touch of the authority he put into his manner as Superman. Lois could hear the unspoken warning in his voice.
Apparently, so did Ralph. Lois watched him retreat with as much haste as the salvation of his dignity allowed and laughed to herself. She was going to enjoy rubbing those very unfunny jokes of his in his face a few months from now when things became a bit more obvious. She rested a hand lightly on her abdomen.
Clark apparently caught the gesture and his expression relaxed into a smile. He put his hand over hers. "Incredible thought, isn't it?'
She nodded. "Incredible. I'm ready for that vacation, though."
"Yeah, me, too. Well, only a couple of hours, and we're out of here for a week. No pressures, no deadlines. And Mom and Dad have volunteered to babysit CJ if we want some time alone. Which," he added, "I will insist on." He turned back to his keyboard, typed a final sentence and hit the "save" key.
"Unless there's anything else, we're on our way, Chief." Clark handed Lois her coat and she glanced one more time at her desk, assuring herself that she hadn't missed anything.
"Nah, get on out of here, kids," Perry said. "You've had a tough week. Enjoy your vacation, and take good care of my godson."
"We will," Lois said. Clark escorted her up the ramp to the elevator, one arm lightly around her waist.
Lois rang the call button, glancing up at the tall, dark, attractive man at her side, and marveled, not for the first time, at how the mysterious workings of the universe had brought him to her when it would have seemed that the odds were stacked astronomically against them, even to the point of her pushing him away, as well, purely out of fear.
But he had persisted in the face of all the discouragement she could dish out; he had somehow overcome all of her efforts to repel him and worn down the protective walls she had thrown up between them. The contrast between the Lois Lane of today and the bitter, hostile woman of four years ago was like night and day.
He was looking down at her, a little smile on his face, his expressive brown eyes bright with happiness. All of his dreams were coming true with this latest piece of news, and hers, too. Of course, she hadn't visualized two babies as close together in age as CJ and this one would be, but they would handle it. Together, they could handle anything.
The elevator deposited them at the basement level and they strolled toward their new Jeep Cherokee, parked in the center of the nearest row. Lois glanced back at the aisle where they had lost their other Jeep only a few days before. The burned spots had been painted over already, the broken water fountain replaced, which, knowing the usual speed of a bureaucracy, was a true miracle in Lois's opinion.
She pulled her coat more closely around her at the chill of the place. It was only mid September, but a cold air mass originating in Canada had moved in earlier in the week, bringing with it rain, wind and chill. Tonight was supposed to be clear and cold, but tomorrow the weather forecasters were predicting the approach of a heavy storm that was supposed to drop at least three to four inches of rain before it cleared out. Lois was just as happy that by that time she, Clark and CJ would be in Kansas, soaking in the early autumn sunshine.
The sound of footsteps echoing in the cavernous space drew her attention. Three men were walking toward them from a vehicle that was parked near the end of the row. Lois squinted at them. She was familiar with the faces of most of the Daily Planet's employees, at least by sight, although there were always new ones, and she didn't know these three.
The next moment things were happening so fast it took Lois's breath away. As they passed the men, Lois felt a pair of powerful arms clamp themselves around her and lift her completely off her feet. Clark spun toward her and there was a scuffle; Lois felt herself dropped hard onto the concrete. Gasping, she rolled to her hands and knees as she saw Clark, his glasses gone, throw one of the three men against a car. A second was trying feebly to get to his feet.
"Lois, look out!" Clark lunged toward her as she felt someone grab her again from behind. Then a hand reached past her with what looked like a canister of Mace in it, and a hissing sound told her the button had been depressed.
Something was flung over her head, and two sets of powerful arms dragged her, struggling frantically, to her feet. Where was Clark? Tear gas wouldn't stop him…
There were shouts somewhere behind her; she thought she recognized Jimmy's voice, then she was bundled forward through a car door, and onto a seat. Someone cursed luridly when her foot connected with something soft, and then another something, this one very hard, struck her on the side of her face. It was the last thing she remembered.
Clark lunged desperately for the man who had seized his wife from behind. The assailant's eyes were wide with an expression of sheer panic, even as he wrapped a burly arm about Lois's torso, and he clumsily thrust a can of what appeared to be Mace, or possibly red pepper spray at Clark.
Pale, green mist spurted at high pressure from the nozzle and caught him full in the face, bringing with it a burst of searing pain. He instinctively clapped his hands to his eyes and inhaled air in a gasp of sheer agony.
His throat closed as the burning stuff spread down his breathing passages and into his lungs, and he tumbled to the ground, coughing and choking helplessly, his eyes closed and streaming tears. Everywhere the mist had touched seemed to be on fire.
He heard the roar of a car engine and the screech of tires, and threw himself blindly forward in a last, desperate attempt to stop the men who had taken his wife. The impact of the car flung him backwards to strike one of the building's concrete supports. The lights went out.
Jimmy Olsen heard the thump, and had to jump out of the way to avoid the car that tore past him, then he saw the figure of Clark Kent crumpled on the ground. For a split second he was frozen in shock.
Ralph's voice jolted him out of it. The other man was still staring after the vanished automobile. "Crazy driver!"
"CK!" Jimmy started forward. "Ralph, call the police!"
"Huh?" The other man turned toward him, mouth agape. "What for?"
"Do it *now*!" Jimmy was already dropping to one knee beside his friend, half afraid of what he would find. "He hit CK!"
Ralph stared at him for an instant, then ran back toward the elevator. "I'll be right back!"
To Jimmy's relief, he found that Clark was breathing. In fact, he was beginning to cough. The coughs became harder, until he was choking, coughing and retching violently. Jimmy turned him carefully sideways and attempted to support his head, trying desperately to recall his one first aid class, taken years ago in high school. He hoped he wasn't causing any damage, but he couldn't see how it could possibly be any worse than CK choking to death.
In the subdued light of the parking garage his friend's face looked greenish. For a moment Jimmy was horrified, but then he saw that it was caused by a layer of sparkling, greenish crystals as fine as powder, coating his face, eyebrows, hair and part of his neck and suit. Blood from his nose ran down his face, staining the garish patterns of his tie. One side of his face was already swelling and discolored with a dark bruise. As Jimmy reached out a hand to touch the powdery substance, Clark's eyes opened and Jimmy could see that they were bloodshot and watering alarmingly. He coughed wrackingly, then reached up a hand, feeling about until he caught Jimmy's sleeve.
"CK, it's Jimmy! Hold still! That car hit you. You might be hurt…"
"It burns," Clark muttered. He coughed. "Can't…"
"Lemme get some water," Jimmy said. "I'll wash it off. Don't move!" He scrambled to his feet and ran to the only immediate source of water available—the water fountain. Quickly, he soaked his handkerchief and returned, only to find Clark pushing himself to a sitting position, one hand over his eyes.
"CK, I told you not to move! Here's something to wipe off your face with."
He held out a hand and Jimmy put the handkerchief into it. Clark scrubbed frantically at his face, between coughs. "Jimmy, they took Lois!" He leaned forward, coughing harshly again. "Police…"
"Ralph's calling the police," Jimmy told him. "Sit still 'til the paramedics get here. You need to get to a hospital. That car hit you!"
"Jimmy…" Clark coughed raspingly. "I need for you to call Dr. Klein. It's important."
The chime announcing the elevator sounded, and the doors opened. Ralph and Perry emerged.
Perry hurried over to Jimmy and Clark, Ralph trailing along behind. Halfway to them, the editor stooped to pick up Clark's glasses from where they lay on the pavement. He dropped onto one knee beside them and pressed the glasses into Clark's hand. "Are you okay, son? Ralph told me what happened."
"Perry?" Clark coughed again and, to Jimmy's surprise, put the glasses on immediately.
"Yeah." Their boss glanced measuringly at Ralph. "Did either of you see the car that hit him?"
"I saw it," Ralph said, immediately. "It was a black Dodge sedan, maybe a couple of years old. The first letter on the license plate was a Y or maybe an X."
Clark broke into another string of violent coughs. Jimmy looked worriedly at his boss. "He's been coughing like that since we found him, Chief. I don't know what's wrong."
"Jimmy," Clark half-choked over the name. "I need Dr. Klein." He wheezed and coughed furiously until his face had turned a deep red.
"Jimmy, get on the phone to S.T.A.R. Labs, now," Perry said. He held Clark's shoulders as the coughing subsided once more, leaving him gasping for breath. "What's all this green stuff in your hair, Clark? Looks to me like you got sprayed with some kind of chemical."
Clark nodded, eyes closed. He took a deep, whistling breath. "They took Lois." Jimmy winced at the bitter defeat he heard in his friend's voice. "I couldn't stop them. I couldn't…"
Perry leaned forward and looked hard at Clark's face. "What's the matter with your eyes, Clark? Did you get some of it in them?":
Again Clark nodded. Perry waved a hand in front of the other man's eyes and Jimmy saw his editor's face go noticeably paler. "You can't see, can you?"
"No," Clark said. His voice was trembling. "I can't."
Clark leaned back against the concrete brace and tried unsuccessfully to resist the urge to cough. The impulse was overwhelming and he finally gave in. Perry's hands on his shoulders tightened. "Don't try to stop it, Clark. Get that stuff out of your lungs if you can." His voice changed slightly. "Ralph, go up to the newsroom and find some coats. I want him covered up until we can get some help here!"
Faintly, Clark heard the retreat of Ralph's footsteps. The burning in his lungs was less, but his face still hurt, and he knew the "green stuff" in his hair was affecting him. If Dr. Klein didn't arrive soon he was going to be in more trouble.
And how was he going to explain all this to Perry and Jimmy?
But the overriding thought in his mind was Lois. He had failed her when she needed him most. How was he ever going to find her now? CJ was without his mother, and their new baby, which they had just found out about; all the bright future that they had seen ahead only a few hours before…
Faintly, he heard Perry's voice through the haze that was beginning to creep over his thoughts.
"Clark? Clark, are you with me, son? Try and stay awake—you mustn't pass out, do you hear me?"
He shook his head. "Yeah, Perry, I hear you."
"Don't fall asleep. Hold on. Dr. Klein's on his way. I sent Jimmy to pick up CJ. Alice and I will take care of him for you. Don't worry about him."
"Dammit, Clark! Stay awake! I'm going to try to get some of this stuff off you. It can't be doin' you any good." Perry began to brush at his hair, one hand shielding his face from the powder that sifted down with his motions. "Listen to me, Clark. You have to stay awake."
Perry could see that Clark was visibly fading and pushed down the feeling of near-panic. He had never imagined himself in this sort of position. Clark was the last person on Earth he would ever have expected to find needing help like this, but it was up to him to try to keep the young man alive until more qualified persons could get here. Where the dickens was Dr. Klein? Since Clark had asked for him, he was probably the one to take over.
Perry dusted the green powder off Clark's hair and clothing as thoroughly as he could manage. If this stuff was what he suspected, then the farther he could get it from Clark, the better.
The elevator chimed and Ralph emerged, a bundle of coats in his arms. Perry glanced over at him, then back at Clark. His head was sagging, his body starting to slip sideways against the pillar. Perry grabbed him.
"Ralph, get over here!" he barked. "I think he's goin' into shock. Help me wrap him up!"
Together they bundled him in the coats. "Here, get his head down. Where in Elvis's name are those medics?"
"There's a big pileup on the parkway, Chief," Ralph informed him. "They can't get through. Hope Kent doesn't die on us before they get here. He doesn't look so good."
Perry felt the sudden, irrational urge to lay violent hands on his subordinate and quelled it forcibly. Ralph continued, "He said those guys grabbed Lane. What do you suppose they're after?"
"I don't know," Perry said, shortly. "If I did, maybe I'd have a better idea where to look for her."
"Maybe it's some kind of white slavery ring," Ralph theorized. "That'd be some story, y'know? A sex slave ring, maybe. I've read about that kind of thing, and a dish like Lane—"
"Ralph," Perry said, "shut up. Clark doesn't need to hear that right now. Clark, you hang on, you hear me?" He turned his head as a familiar van entered the parking lot and exhaled in a sigh of relief. "Here's Dr. Klein, now. And I hear a siren. Sounds like the police…"
"Clark, wake up." Bernard Klein's voice was coming from a great distance. Clark forced his eyelids up, and for a moment couldn't remember why he couldn't see. It seemed light enough, but it was as if he were staring into a bright mist where nothing was visible.
A formless shadow seemed to move in the mist. Dr. Klein's voice said, "Clark, can you hear me?"
"I hear you," he tried to say, but only a faint croak emerged. He lifted a hand and felt around. He encountered skin, and realized, after a second, that he was touching a face. He cleared his throat. "Dr. Klein?"
"Yes. How do you feel?"
Clark considered that. His face no longer hurt, and his breathing passages and lungs retained only a residual soreness. He was lying on what felt like a firm mattress, and a thick blanket covered him.
He reached up to feel his own face and hair. His hair was damp; apparently someone had given him a bath while he had been unconscious. "I feel all right, I guess." He bit his lip as full memory returned. "Lois…"
"The police are searching for her," Dr. Klein said, uncomfortably. "They're doing everything they can, Clark. Mr. White told me to tell you that, and that he and Mrs. White have CJ. He said they won't let him out of their sight." He cleared his throat. "Speaking of sight…"
"Where am I?" Clark asked. This bed didn't feel like anything he'd ever seen at S.T.A.R. Labs.
"You're in my guest room," Dr. Klein said. "I didn't think I'd better take you to the hospital, considering the circumstances."
Clark froze for a long second, and then one of the knots in his stomach seemed to relax. "You know," he said, slowly.
"I've been pretty sure for a while." Bernard Klein's voice had a distinct smile in it. "But I figured if you wanted me to know, you'd tell me." His voice became businesslike. "I washed the Kryptonite off you as well as I could, Superman, but…"
"Clark," he corrected.
"Clark," Dr. Klein repeated. "But it wouldn't hurt for you to shower, now that you're awake, just to get any I missed. Then I'll want to examine your eyes more thoroughly than I could, before. Can you see anything at all?"
"Hmmph." Dr. Klein cleared his throat again. "Well, let's not jump to any conclusions. Can you stand up?"
"I think so." He pushed himself up slowly and slid his feet over the edge of the bed. Dr. Klein gave him an arm to steady himself with as he put his feet on the floor and carefully stood up.
"Good. We'll take this slow." Dr. Klein guided him across a carpeted floor. "Okay. You're standing in front of the bathroom door. I'll show you where everything is. Do you think you can manage by yourself?"
By the time he exited the bathroom, clad in a pair of overflowing pajama bottoms, he was shaking. He had no super powers yet, that much was pretty obvious. Inhaling a Kryptonite aerosol hadn't done him any good, and it looked as if it would be a while before he recovered from the detrimental effects. It was frustrating to have to wait, when he wanted to be out flying around at least listening for Lois. Anything could be happening to her while he was literally grounded, and the thought made his guts clench up with fear. Who was behind this? The Luthor clone? Could they have been wrong in assuming that he didn't know Clark's identity? If so, then why had he set traps to kill Clark that couldn't possibly have harmed Superman? That didn't make sense, but he had to take the possibility into account. That meant CJ could possibly be in danger, and Perry and Alice White as well. He had to warn them of the danger.
Dr. Klein was waiting for him when he emerged and led him to a chair. "Here, Clark, sit down." He didn't say what Clark was sure he was thinking. Superman probably looked as bad as he felt. He could hear the other man moving about. Occasionally something clattered.
"Dr. Klein," Clark said. "I need to call my boss. If what happened is related to the Luthor clone…"
"Mr. White already thought of that," Dr. Klein told him. "He contacted your friend, Inspector Henderson. The Luthor clone is still in jail where he's supposed to be, but your boss said to let you know he and Mrs. White aren't taking any chances."
"I just feel like I should be there to protect him, myself," Clark said. "Not that my being there did Lois any good."
Dr. Klein didn't answer. After a moment, he said, "I want to take a look at your eyes. Mr. White said you were sprayed in the face?"
He nodded. "It was like a pepper spray."
"Hmm." Dr. Klein was silent for a moment. "Do you think they knew who you were?"
"I don't know," Clark said. "I'd never seen the guy before, but why else would anyone use Kryptonite spray on me?"
"I can't imagine. Does anyone know about you—besides Lois and myself, that is?"
"My parents, of course. There were one or two others, but they were never able to prove anything. Jason Mazik, and the original Luthor knew. So did Diana Stride. Tempus…" That thought brought him up short. Could Tempus be behind this? The implications of that were terrifying.
"Tempus? You mean that nutcase who tried to take over the U.S.?"
"Yes. Tempus is a time traveler. He's a violent psychotic who's kind of dedicated his life to destroying me. Apparently Lois's and my descendants are supposed to found a kind of Utopia, and he hates it. It's possible that he's hit on this way to try to prevent it. Dr. Klein, I've got to find her! If Tempus has hold of her, he'll probably kill her!"
"Well…" Dr. Klein sounded doubtful. "Did he tell you that stuff? It's sounds looney."
"Yeah. But we kind of had proof. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."
"Time travel?" Dr. Klein still sounded doubtful.
"I know it seems crazy, but yes. I've taken a couple of rides through time, myself. I'll tell you about them, sometime. Right now…"
"You're right. Look straight ahead, Sup—Clark. Can you see anything?"
"Good." Klein's voice sounded pleased. "I'm shining a flashlight in your eyes. If you can see it, that means the nerves aren't damaged. Tilt your head back, now. I'm going to put a stain in your eyes, to look for abrasions…"
It was sometime later that Dr. Klein finished and Clark sat tensely, waiting for the verdict. At last he couldn't stand the suspense any longer. "Dr. Klein—"
"Huh? Oh, sorry, Superm—Clark. I forgot."
"What do you see? Am I blind permanently?" He held his breath, waiting.
Dr. Klein took his time in answering. At last he said, "Well, in a human, I'd say a corneal transplant would be the way to go. Corneas aren't like other transplanted tissue, you know. There are no rejection problems…"
"Sorry. In your case, I don't know. Your corneas are clouded…probably from the Kryptonite radiation. But as we know, your eyes…well, they're different from a human's. You have phenomenal healing and regenerative capabilities. They may repair themselves. Once the effects of the Kryptonite wear off, you may recover without any help. If not…well…" Dr. Klein broke off. "Well, if they don't, we can talk about the other options then. Give it some time." Clark felt the scientist's hand on his arm. "I'm sorry I can't tell you more. I know you must be pretty upset. Is there anybody you'd like to call?"
"Yeah, my parents." He bit his lip. "I need to start looking for Lois! How can I just sit here doing nothing—"
"Clark." Bernard Klein didn't stumble over the name this time. "Give yourself a little time. The police are looking for her. There's not much you can do until your powers come back. You inhaled Kryptonite dust, for Pete's sake!"
Clark clenched his fists. "I know. I'm just not used to being helpless, Dr. Klein. I should have protected her! I should have stopped them!" He dropped his face into his hands. "She's pregnant, for God's sake! What kind of a husband am I if I can't protect my wife and child when they need me?"
"Clark, you did everything you could." Dr. Klein's voice was emphatic. "You're not infallible, super powers or not. You're only human…or close enough. Take it easy on yourself! You'll bounce back and then you'll find her. If this Tempus is behind it, you'll stop him." Clark heard his footsteps retreat and then return. "Here's the phone. Go ahead and make your call. If you'd like to call Mr. White, too, to check on CJ, go ahead. I'll be in the kitchen, making us some dinner. Do you like hamburgers?"
Lois walked back and forth in the bare, little room, hugging her shoulders with her arms.
She had awakened hours before in the dark, cold and miserable, slumped in the room's only piece of furniture, a battered armchair, with a broken spring protruding from the cushion. The left side of her face hurt, and careful exploration with her fingers told her that her cheek and jaw on that side were very tender and a little swollen. So much for any hope of gentlemanly behavior on the part of her captors, she told herself a little grimly, holding her pounding head in her hands.
After the throbbing in her skull began to subside somewhat, she had explored her prison.
It was a small room, perhaps ten feet by twelve, with two boarded-up windows and a single door. The floor seemed to be linoleum, which was peeling in places, and definitely cold to the touch.
She still had her coat; that was about the only good thing she could think of about the situation. One of her shoes was gone, not that the heels were all that comfortable anyway, but her feet were cold.
She had debated for several minutes over the wisdom of yelling for help; then common sense had taken over. Not knowing who these people were, or why they had kidnapped her—or how they had prevented Clark from rescuing her—well, maybe yelling might not be such a good idea, at least initially. So she had waited, bundled in the chair with her feet tucked under her for warmth, until the pink rays of dawn crept through the gaps in the boarded-up windows. Then the door had opened. Two men had escorted her out to a tiny restroom and when she re-emerged she was blindfolded and led somewhere, seated ungently in a straight-backed chair, and the questions started.
She was an investigative reporter, the questioner had begun. She had written a recent article about the City Council and the Mayor, and exposed a scheme wherein the City had committed to buying any unsold tickets to the Metro's games, the tickets to be donated to underprivileged children. Only the tickets, it turned out, were being given away as political favors and gifts to influential persons instead; less than half of them were actually going to the children in question. Where had her information come from? Who had tipped her off to the scheme? What had she found? Was there any information she had found that she had not printed? Who else knew, and where did she keep the evidence?
At first she hadn't understood what they wanted, although she had refused to answer any questions just on principle. Corruption in Metropolis's city government was hardly new—certainly nothing to kidnap someone over—but the fact that she had been blindfolded, and that the voice of the person questioning her had been grotesquely distorted, told her something else.
He was afraid she would recognize him.
Lois shivered now, staring around at the shadowy room. Her stomach was feeling queasy, but she was conversely hungry. She had gotten a drink of water from the faucet in the bathroom that morning, but they had given her no food, and when she asked the two muscle boys who had escorted her back to the room if she was to be given anything to eat, neither had answered.
But one thing had been made perfectly clear. If she yelled for help, it wouldn't matter if Superman arrived because she would already be dead.
Whoever her mysterious captor was, he must think that she had discovered something about his background—something that he was, apparently, desperate to keep hidden. Obviously, he wasn't sure, or none of this elaborate concealment would be necessary. He had promised she would be released unharmed if she cooperated. Could she trust that promise?
Lois thought it over. Mr. X wanted to know if she had any more information on the members of the City Council than she had already printed, and, if so, where it was. He was undoubtedly hiding his identity from her because of the possibility of rescue by Superman—a reasonable precaution, considering—on the chance that she did not already know who he was. But he had been unable to avoid giving her a clue.
The people she had investigated had been five members of the City Council and, of course, Her Honor, the Mayor, who had closed her eyes to what was going on, even when informed of it by another member of the Council. Lois had investigated the backgrounds of all six for her article, talking to former colleagues and business associates, checking political histories, looking up political records, family history, possible involvement with any other less than aboveboard conduct in the past. None of it seemed to be a reason for kidnapping her, but apparently Mr. X, whoever he was, thought differently, so there must be something she hadn't found yet. And he had to be someone she had either met personally, or had other reason to know what he looked or sounded like. And he knew she would figure all this out, eventually.
The concealed identity and his promises were just a smokescreen. He had no intention of letting her go.
She stared at the boarded-up windows. How likely was it that she could break either window—which she had already discovered were nailed firmly shut from the outside—break through those heavy boards and get away before they could rush through the door and stop her?
Lois rose from her chair. The linoleum was cold under her feet and as she moved, the nausea, which she had kept in some abeyance until now, surfaced with a vengeance and she began to retch.
There was no container she could use. She stumbled to the farthest corner and proceeded to empty her stomach of what little it contained.
When the heaving subsided she made her shaky way back to the chair and collapsed into its embrace. As she did so, the door opened. One of the guards stuck his head inside.
"What's goin' on here? Geez, what stinks?"
Lois lowered her face into her hands and didn't answer. A voice outside asked, "What's going on?"
"She barfed her breakfast." The door swung shut with a bang.
Lois sat still for several moments, taking deep breaths and waiting for the room to steady. Surprisingly, after a short time, she realized she felt somewhat better. Slowly and cautiously she got to her feet, trying to ignore the sour smell that now filled the cold, little room, and crept to the door. Sitting here was getting her nowhere. Without much hope, she pressed her eye to the keyhole.
Nothing. Either the key was in the lock, or someone was standing directly in front of it.
Just as she was about to give up, the view cleared. Someone had been blocking it. She saw a pair of male buttocks in dirty jeans pass before her peep hole and concluded it was one of the guards. Kneeling on the cold floor, wrapped in the coat, Lois kept her eye to the keyhole. It didn't seem like much, but any information she could overhear might be useful.
Perhaps half an hour passed; Lois was chilled and stiff, and the nausea was beginning to roil her stomach again, when there was some commotion beyond the door. The keyhole was blocked again by the dirty jeans, then they moved, only to be replaced by others.
"…Cops are all over the place," a voice was saying, in a deep, bass rumble. "I couldn't get near it."
"What about the townhouse?"
"Kent's there, and a couple of other people. We'll have to wait. What about Lane?"
"The boss says to let her sit for a while. Maybe she'll feel more like talking after she gets a little hungry. Just remember, if anybody shows up, use the regular stuff. Keep the spray for Superman. There isn't much left and, if you pull a boner like last time and waste any more, the boss is gonna take it out of your hide!"
"I don't like this, Mitch. Everybody knows the guy's got it bad for Lane. He finds out we got her, and—"
"That's why you don't want to waste the stuff. And if she even peeps, you know what to do."
"I dunno. Kidnapping's one thing. Murder's something else. I didn't sign up for no murder charge!"
"You let her talk, you know what's going to happen to you—" The voice became indistinguishable as the speaker moved away from the door. The other voice muttered something equally muffled, and there was the faint sound of footsteps retreating.
Lois knelt on the cold floor, trying to make sense of what she had just heard. What spray? What were they talking about? Apparently it was meant to be used on Superman, should he come to rescue her.
The sickness began to rise in her throat again, and she had to scramble to her feet to make a bolt for the corner. Her toe snagged on a ridge in the linoleum and she nearly tripped, making it to her destination barely in time.
Not that it mattered. The dry heaves left her trembling and weak. She staggered back, one hand over her mouth. This couldn't go on. How could she possibly last like this?
But if she talked, told them what they wanted to know, that she knew nothing about what they were after, one of two things would happen. They would either disbelieve her, or kill her. No, the safest course was to continue to refuse to answer any questions. As miserable as she was, it was the most likely to keep her alive the longest.
She made her way back to the door, one hand against the wall for balance, and sank to the floor to resume her vigil, but after a few moments she pulled her eye away from the keyhole. Staring at the back of a pair of blue jeans wasn't getting her anywhere and she was freezing. Catching pneumonia wasn't going to do anything for her chances of escape.
Her legs were wobbly as she got to her feet. At this rate, she wasn't going to be in any shape to run if she did figure out how to get out of this place. She leaned against the wall to the left of the door, careful not to touch the panel itself. Something told her they might object if they were to discover her spying on them. Finally, though, she pushed herself away from the wall. At least, the armchair was padded. If she curled up in it with her coat over her, she could warm up.
She turned toward the chair and almost exclaimed aloud as the heel of her bare foot came down on an irregularity in the linoleum. It hurt.
With a softly spoken swear word, she bent to see just what it was that she had stepped on.
For an instant she saw nothing, and then she forgot about the cold, her nauseous stomach and her probable fate at the hands of her kidnappers. She dropped to her knees, examining what she had found.
There was a slight ridge in the peeling linoleum, outlining a rectangular bulge perhaps two and a half feet across by three feet long. If she had been wearing shoes, she would never have noticed it, she thought, feeling the surface of the linoleum with half numb fingers. And maybe, just maybe, this was her way out.
Lois bit her lip. It could, of course, mean nothing, be simply an irregularity in the floor. On the other hand, this house was old; she didn't have to be an expert to see that. It was just barely possible that this could be the vent of one of the old style floor heaters, now closed and covered with the ancient, peeling vinyl. If she only had a way to pry the stuff up, to see!
Well, the linoleum was deteriorating. She might be able to work it free, if only she had some sort of tool…
She looked around the semi-dark room for inspiration. Nothing. She could tear apart her armchair, she supposed, use some of the wood of the frame, or one of the cushion springs—only they would probably notice the next time they came to get her. Fortunately, the possible vent was situated to the left of the door; the opening panel would itself conceal any work she did on it from her captors' observation. But what was she to use?
As usual, in a bad spot, her brain was working fast. Lois's eyes fell on the large, ornate metal buckle of the matching belt that had come with her stylish, red wool skirt. Without another thought, she unfastened the article of clothing, and set to work.
"Okay, honey, we're at the door. Just let me get it for you…" Martha Kent reached past her son to unlock the panel and push it wide. Walking slowly, with Clark grasping her elbow, they entered the townhouse. Jonathan Kent followed, CJ in his arms.
Martha watched, biting her lip as Clark released her arm, made his way with great care into the living room and found the sofa. He sank onto it and she let out her breath in a sigh.
Clark turned his head toward her, and Martha could hardly bear the unfocussed look in his brown eyes. He might be a grown man and the most powerful being on the face of the Earth, but to her he was still the baby boy who had come to her like a miracle over thirty years before, and it tore at her heart to see what had happened to him.
"Dad, could you bring me CJ, please?" His voice interrupted the thoughts going through her mind. Jonathan moved quickly over to the sofa and settled the baby securely into his son's lap. The little boy was uncharacteristically solemn as Clark began to rock him gently back and forth.
"How do you feel, son?" Jonathan asked for the second time in ten minutes. "Is there anything we can get you?"
Clark smiled slightly. It was a strained smile, but at least it was a smile. "How about a bottle for CJ? It's just about lunchtime for him."
"Sure. Are they in the refrigerator?"
Jonathan headed for the kitchen. Martha seated herself beside Clark.
"So how *do* you feel?" she asked, quietly. "I've noticed you didn't answer your father, either time he asked."
Clark sighed. "I feel…normal. Except that I can't see."
"No sign of your powers, yet?"
"No. I don't know. Maybe. I think my hearing might be starting to come back, but I'm not sure because I'm trying so hard to listen for everything around me."
"They'll come back, Clark."
He grimaced as if in pain. "I know they will, Mom, but every moment they're gone is one more moment that Lois is God-knows-where in the hands of some—" He broke off as CJ whimpered, and lowered his voice. "She may already be—" He stopped again, unwilling to say the word.
Martha put a hand over his. "Don't even think that, Clark! You can't give up. Lois is smart. She'll figure out a way to escape."
Clark shook his head slowly, holding CJ a little tighter. "You don't understand. It isn't just her. CJ needs his mother, I need my wife, and Lois is…" He swallowed. "Lois is pregnant, Mom. We'd just found out when she was kidnapped. If she loses this baby because of what's happened…"
He closed his eyes. Martha could see him fighting tears as she stared at him, appalled at the revelation and unsure of what to say. She hadn't seen Clark cry since he was eight years old.
"You're sure?" she said, finally.
He nodded, eyes still closed. "The test came back yesterday."
"But I thought—" She bit off the words.
"Somehow Dr. Klein's tests were wrong, Mom. He's going to go back over his findings to try to figure out what happened, but it won't matter if Lois—"
"Lois is tough," Jonathan said. He was standing in the doorway, CJ's bottle in one hand. "And she's got a lot to live for. Have some faith in her, Clark." He strode over to the couch. "Here's CJ's lunch. Do you want to feed him?"
Clark nodded, extending a hand for the bottle. Jonathan put it into his hand and watched carefully as Clark expertly arranged CJ and put the bottle's nipple into the baby's mouth. The little boy began to suck ravenously.
"He reminds me of you when you were that age," Martha said. "Even then you had an appetite that wouldn't quit." She watched the baby for several seconds, then rose suddenly to her feet. "I'm going to make lunch for the rest of us," she announced. "Yell if you need any help, Clark. Come on, Jonathan." And she dragged her surprised spouse from the room.
Clark sat still on the sofa, feeding his son. He could hear the noises CJ made as he worked on the bottle; a couple of times he broke the suction on the nipple to let air in before the bottle collapsed. At last he could tell by the feel that the container was empty. He set it aside and moved CJ gently upright.
"Okay, pal, let's get rid of the air." He rubbed a hand up and down the baby's back in the way that he had learned over the last three months was the most effective, and was rewarded a moment later by a loud belch.
"There," he told CJ. "Now, maybe we can do the nap thing."
He put CJ up to his shoulder and began to rock him. CJ fussed a little, then settled down against his father's shoulder and snuggled against him. Clark continued to rock the baby gently back and forth, lulling him into sleep, but his mind went back again to Lois. What was happening to her? Was she even still alive? She had to be, because if she wasn't…he couldn't think of the alternative. Without Lois, how could he live? She simply could not be dead!
For a moment he closed his eyes as the frustration and despair threatened to overwhelm him again. CJ whimpered, seeming to sense his mood. He hugged the baby.
"You miss your mom," he said softly to the fussing child. "I miss her too, son. I'll find her for you, somehow. I promise."
CJ stilled against his shoulder. Clark continued to rock him, more slowly now. The room was quiet, except for the baby's breathing, but it was suddenly almost as if Lois sat there next to him, calming his fear.
She was alive. He could still feel her presence, somehow. The realization came to him very slowly, but left certainty in its wake. Lois was alive: cold, miserable and frightened, but alive.
He tried to contain the swell of hope that surged within him. A feeling was such a thin thing to base anything on, but he was unable to shake it. She was unquestionably alive; he knew it with a deep inner sense that went beyond reason. Now, if only his powers would come back, he still had a chance to find her.
The clock on the mantle had just finished chiming six o'clock when Clark, who had been listening to the radio, was jolted out of a half-doze by the wail of a siren some distance away. He clapped his hands to his ears and sat up straight. "Ow!"
Martha's voice said, sharply, "What is it, Clark?"
"Ow! My hearing is back!" Clark levitated out of his chair. "My *powers* are back!"
"Oh, thank heavens!" He could hear his mother's footsteps coming across the carpet toward him. "How about your…can you see?"
He felt his smile fade slightly. "No. Not yet."
"Oh." His mother's voice lost a little of its enthusiasm. "Well, give it time. It's not likely to come back all at once."
"Yeah." He turned toward where he knew the stairs were. "I'm going out. If I cruise over the city, listening, I may be able to hear her if she calls me." He had thought this through hours before. "I'll need something to guide me home, though. I want you to put on a cd of Christmas carols. Nobody else is likely to be playing them at this season of the year. Set it to repeat indefinitely. If I listen for that, I'll be able to find my way back."
"All right." His mother's voice sounded concerned, but she raised no objections.
"Take care of CJ for me."
"You can be sure we will, honey. Find her." He felt her hand on his upper arm, and she kissed his cheek.
He reached out and hugged her. "I will. One way or another."
Lois wiped her bleeding hand on the expensive wool skirt she wore. Between the dirt, blood and multiple stains it had acquired in the two days since she had been kidnapped, the piece of clothing was unsalvageable. If she got out of this mess intact, she never wanted to see it again, and anyway, the skirt wouldn't have fit her for much longer.
She regarded her bleeding finger, and her torn and broken nails with a grimace. One didn't think of linoleum as being something which could cut anything at all, but its edges were worse than a razor blade for inflicting painful slices on bare flesh.
She wiped blood on her skirt again and sucked the finger absently, surveying her work.
She had begun this task yesterday afternoon and her progress had been painfully slow. The belt buckle, which was her only tool, was now bent and distorted so badly that no one would have recognized its original purpose just by looking at it. The ancient linoleum was peeling in spots, but in others it appeared to have been welded to the floor, and was pried up only with the greatest of difficulty.
It hadn't taken long, however, before she had found an added incentive for her task. It had become evident after she had pried up only a small amount of the vinyl covering that what lay under it was indeed a floor vent. The grating had been removed and replaced with a piece of what appeared to be plywood, held in place with a few, small nails. It had renewed her determination for the job, but it had not been easy. All the time she worked, she stayed alert for the sounds that would warn her of someone beginning to open the door, whereupon she would scurry across the floor to the chair and sit down, hoping no one would open the door far enough to get a glimpse of what she was doing behind it.
She had been "interviewed" three more times. The question sessions had been quite short, as Lois flatly refused to talk. She had been pushed back into her prison each time with less gentleness than the time before. Her captor's patience was running out; there was no question of that in her mind. If she didn't escape soon, she was sure that it wouldn't be long before the questions were accompanied by other, more vigorous attempts to induce her to talk.
She was cold, alternately nauseated and hungry, and shaking with cold, fatigue and weakness, but sheer determination drove her on, and now she gazed in some triumph at the results.
The vent was cleared of the linoleum, and she had pried out the three nails that held one end down, leaving her enough room to slide her twisted belt buckle beneath that edge and force it upwards. A gap showed between the board and the floor. Lois tried to slip her fingers into the gap.
As soon as she released pressure on the buckle it turned sideways and the gap closed. Two more attempts left her near tears, but she refused to be balked now, simply because of a stubborn piece of wood. She needed something to wedge into the gap which would hold it open long enough for her to get a good grip on the thing with both hands.
Her eyes lit on her single shoe which lay discarded on the floor. That would do.
The next time she pried the wood upward she had the heel of the shoe ready in the other hand and pushed it into the gap. The wood tried to spring back, but now the high heel of her once fashionable shoe was blocking it. Taking a deep breath, she slid the fingers of both hands into the space between the floor and the plywood and pulled upward.
With a squeak that made her hair stand on end, the board came free in her hands.
Lois froze, listening. Had they heard? Would they come to investigate?
Nothing. With a sigh of relief, she peered down the dark hole that was thus revealed.
With one arm, she reached as far downward as she could. The shaft appeared to be made of sheet metal, which flexed slightly beneath her searching hand. It was darker than the dim room around her, but as she let her eyes adjust she could see the faintest of lighter rectangles, more a lessening of the dark than actual light, at the bottom.
Lois swallowed. Dropping down that dark hole was not appealing, but staying here was even less so, and the longer she waited the more likely it was that someone would come, and possibly discover what she had done. The drop was probably no more than ten feet and, if she hung by her hands first, it would be that much less. Nothing was worse than what awaited her if she remained here.
Before her mind could think up more objections, Lois turned onto her stomach and slithered feet first into the vent.
Very slowly, she lowered herself downward by her hands, thanking her lucky stars for her petite figure and for the fact that her pregnancy had not yet begun to show. Dust puffed up around her as she moved farther down into the vent. Her motions were slow and careful. The metal almost certainly was not made to support the full weight of a human, and she had no wish for it to collapse suddenly beneath her.
When she had reached the point where her arms were fully extended, and she was hanging by her fingers, Lois gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, and let go.
The shaft was not completely vertical. She slid down a very steep incline for several feet to emerge suddenly onto a concrete floor.
The bottom of the shaft opened into a basement, she realized after a moment or two, while she regained her breath. A dim light filtered in through several glass-covered windows that were set at ground level—a point that was now just above the top of her head.
Lois peered up through the dirty glass. Straggling greenery obscured her vision but even with the barrier of sickly plants, she could see the sheets of rain coming down. A single, lonely street light made a futile attempt to lighten the gloom beyond the window. The thought of going out into that was not appealing, but the choice was the same as before. Anything was preferable to staying here.
The latch on the window was unmoving, in spite of all her efforts. Time had applied a glue more effective than the best modern science could provide. Lois looked around for a solid object with which she could break the glass and utterly failed to find one.
She set her jaw. Nothing was going to prevent her escape now. Certainly not such a minor obstacle as this!
She removed her coat. Holding it against the dirty pane with one hand, she balled the other into a fist and struck.
There was the gratifying sound of breaking glass. With great care, she struck several more times, knocking broken pieces from the frame. When she had gotten it as clean of glass as she could, she bunched her coat up and thrust it through the opening she had made, then grasped the frame with her hands and began to tug herself upward, heedless of minor cuts from the remaining tiny shards of glass, pushing with bare feet against the rough, concrete wall.
She had her shoulders through the opening when she heard the commotion in the room above her. Muffled shouts echoed down the heater vent, and a door slammed.
Adrenalin jolted through her like a shock of electricity. She made it the rest of the way out the window in what amounted to levitation, seized her coat and ran as hard as she could out into the dark and rain. Her pursuers would be only minutes behind her, if that. She had to make as much distance as she could in the little time she had left. If she didn't escape, it was all over.
Cruising above the City of Metropolis in endless circles, criss-crossing it occasionally, Superman kept his ears tuned for one voice out of millions.
It was a strange thing, but he had discovered years ago that he could somehow discern that one voice, raised in a cry for help, from every other voice in the city and with unerring accuracy.
Rain slapped him in the face. The storm had rolled in just a little after midnight the previous night, but he had kept to his vigil, listening intently for any call from his wife, although so far there had been nothing. The night had passed, and the next day; he could discern that much by judging the light and darkness which his damaged eyes could still perceive. Now it was night again and if anything the weather was worsening, although he wasn't sure that was possible.
The storm was an electrical one, accompanied by more rain than he had seen for several years in this part of the country. He'd been struck by lightning three times so far, and thunder boomed continuously, signaling other strikes. At times, the rain was like a solid wall of water, and he found himself grateful for his ability to hold his breath for an extended period of time.
Below him, the big clock on City Hall struck midnight. Orienting himself by the sound, Clark started another circle, guiding himself to some extent by the other sounds from below him, muffled and distorted as they might be by the rain. He was over Suicide Slum now; the noises issuing from Bibbo's Ace o' Clubs indicated to his experienced ears that the traditional, nightly barroom brawl was in full swing.
Somewhere to his right was a tremendous crash of thunder, loud enough to make him wince. That one must have hit something! He could even smell the ozone from the nearness of the lightning strike. Below and to his left the sounds of the brawl reached a fever pitch.
And it was then that he heard it, almost directly below him.
"Help, Superman! Help!"
It was the call for which he had waited through the seemingly endless hours of forced patience, and he homed in on it like a hunting hound who has sighted game. It was as if something pulled him in with unerring precision. As he hit the ground he could hear three heartbeats, but the important one, his wife's, was behind him, and her breathing was fast and strained, that of a person who has been running. He heard the click of a trigger and then the explosions of gunshots. Bullets bounced wildly from his chest.
For a few confused seconds, the projectiles ricocheted about in all possible directions. There was a scream of pure terror and the splashing footfalls of a running man, but Clark paid them no attention. Where was Lois? Was she all right? Panic welled inside him.
"Lois?" he half shouted. "Lois, are you all right?"
From right beside him he heard a muffled "Yeah". He could hear motion, little splashes, her breathing, her unmistakable heartbeat, and his own heart climbed back down from his throat. She was all right.
"Why didn't you catch the bullets, Superman?" she asked, sounding a little irritated. Clark had never thought an irritated Lois could cause him to feel so much sheer joy. "They almost hit me!"
He cocked his head, turning to face her. The other heartbeat was still there. "There's someone else here."
"One of the men who was chasing me. I…oh, my God…"
There was an instant's pause. "Superman," she was beginning, but he put out his hand and touched her lips gently. She broke off at once, then he felt her hand on his, guiding it until it touched cloth. He took a firm grip on the man's upper arm, wrapped his other arm about her waist, holding her shivering body tightly against his own, and lifted into the air. The headquarters of the Metropolis Police Department had its own distinct and unique sounds. Slowly, he headed in the general direction that he knew it to be, until he was clearly able to distinguish those noises from the rest of Metropolis's racket, even through the panicked shrieks of his prisoner.
Lois clung to him and he could feel the saturated condition of her coat and how cold her body was. If he had been able to use his heat vision to warm her he would have, but he couldn't. It was one of the things he had already attempted in the previous hours.
With a slightly harder thump than normal, due to his inability to judge the distance with his usual pinpoint accuracy, he touched down on the steps of the Metropolis Police Department Headquarters, and released his wife. "Are you all right, Lois?"
"I'm fine, Superman." Her voice sounded a little shaky, but he didn't say so.
"Good. Let's turn this gentleman over to the right people," he said, deliberately keeping his voice light. "You need to get inside, out of the rain."
"In here, folks," the officer said. "Watch your step, Mr. Kent."
Clark let his mother guide him into the room, his father following with CJ in his arms. Perry's voice said, "Clark! They just called me. She's okay!"
"Yeah, Superman told me," Clark said. "Where is she? And what are you doing here, Chief?"
"She's still in Henderson's office. A friend of mine in the department gave me a call. How are *you* doin', son?"
"Okay. A lot better, knowing Lois is all right."
He could hear the hesitation in his editor's voice. "Eyes any better?"
He hesitated as well. "Not much," he admitted, finally. "My doctor says it's going to take some time."
"Oh." Perry was silent for a moment. "Well, you take the time, Clark. The Daily Planet takes care of its own. Understand?"
"Yes. Thanks, Perry."
Perry's hand patted him on the shoulder.
There was the sound of a door opening, and his boss's voice said, "Lois! Honey, are you okay?"
"More or less," Lois's voice said. There was the quick sound of her footsteps—bare feet, he realized by the sound—and suddenly her arms were around him. "Oh, Clark! I'm so glad you're here!"
He wrapped his arms around her and rested his cheek against the top of her head. Her hair was still damp. "I'm glad *you* are," he said into her hair. "Are you all right? Is the baby…?"
"I'm all right, Clark, really. Inspector Henderson even got me a sandwich and something to drink when I got here. But—" She pulled back and her hand touched his face. "What happened to…?"
"We'll talk about it later," he told her. "First we're taking you to Metro General to get checked over."
"Clark, I'm *fine*!"
Clark heard Perry laugh softly, much too softly for Lois to hear. He felt his mouth set itself in stubborn lines. "Lois, you were kidnapped, for God's sake! Superman found you being chased by two hoods, in an alley in Suicide Slum—in a blinding rainstorm! Just this once, don't argue, okay? Let's get you checked over, if only for *my* peace of mind."
Silence for a very long moment, then she gave a long-suffering sigh. "Oh, all right. When you put it that way…"
Clark heard three very soft sighs of relief. Perry said, "It's not a bad idea, Lois. You had a rough time. And don't worry—" A grin had sneaked into his voice. "This isn't counting against your vacation time, in spite of the suits, upstairs."
"It better not!" Lois's voice fairly crackled with irritation.
Clark hadn't removed his arms from about his wife; he *needed* to reassure himself that she was here and safe, but the dampness of her hair reminded him of something. "Uh, Dad, did you remember the bag of clothes?"
"Right here," Jonathan Kent's voice said. "And here's somebody else who's missed you, Lois, but I'm afraid he conked out in the car."
"CJ!" Lois moved to free herself from his arms, and Clark released her. "I didn't even see him with you standing there behind Martha, Jonathan! Oh, let me hold him just a minute." Clark could hear movement to his right. "I missed him so much!" There was a sniffle. "I was so scared I'd never see him or Clark again!"
Perry's voice said softly, in his ear, "Now there's something I never thought I'd see. Mad Dog Lane cuddling a baby and liking it!"
"Miracles *do* happen, Chief," Clark said.
"Yeah, but not that often."
Clark felt the muscles of his face stretching into a grin for the first time in days.
"Don't think I don't hear you guys," Lois's voice said. "I'm going to change in the bathroom. A policewoman loaned me some clothes, but she's bigger than I am, and she didn't have a pair of shoes that came anywhere near close. Then I want to get this exam business over as quick as possible. I want more than a cheese sandwich and a soda for dinner…and I want to sleep in my own bed tonight!"
Heavier footsteps entered the room. Henderson's voice said, "You can use my office, Lois. You got my rug soaking wet already. It can't do any more damage."
"Gee, thanks, Inspector." Her bare footsteps retreated, and the door shut.
Perry's voice said, "You got any leads on these people yet, Bill?"
"Not yet. The piece of muscle Superman brought in was too scared to talk."
"Who is he?" Clark asked.
"His name is Mitchell Ross. Used to live in Cleveland." Henderson's voice was approaching him. "How are things going, Clark? I heard what happened."
"My doctor says the spray was pretty toxic to the eyes," Clark said, truthfully. He and Dr. Klein had worked the explanation out that first night. "He says it's going to take a while before we know for sure."
"I see." Henderson's voice sounded grim. "I hope it turns out all right. We're going to do our best to catch these people. Your wife told us everything she could. She saw the flunkies, but she never got a look at the guy in charge. I wish most of our witnesses were as observant as she is, though."
"Other witnesses aren't Lois Lane," Perry said. "She didn't win her journalism awards for dog shows."
"Yeah. But don't tell her I said so," Henderson said. "You must be—?"
It took Clark a second to realize the Inspector was speaking to Jonathan and Martha. "Oh, these are my parents, Bill—Martha and Jonathan Kent. Mom and Dad, Inspector Henderson."
The door opened while they were exchanging greetings, and Lois's footsteps came toward them.
"I'm all ready." Her hand touched his arm lightly and he instinctively put his other hand over hers. "Can we go, now?"
"Sure. Thanks for everything, Bill."
"You're welcome." Henderson's voice was hard to read. "I'll let you know if we find anything."
"Now," Clark said, "get into bed. Mom's bringing you up something to eat, but you heard what the doctor said. If you won't let them keep you overnight for observation, then you're at least supposed to get plenty of rest."
Lois slid into the bed. "You get in, too," she said. "Your Mom told me you didn't have any sleep for two days while you were out looking for me." She watched as he felt carefully around and slipped in next to her. She pulled the blankets up and took his hand. "Clark, what happened to you? You—" She swallowed a lump in her throat as he turned his face and those unfocussed brown eyes toward her. "How did this happen?" she repeated.
There was a knock at the door and Clark called, "Come in, Mom!"
The door opened and Martha entered, followed by Jonathan, each carrying a tray.
"We thought you could use something to eat, too, Clark," his father said. Lois hid a smile.
Later, cuddled next to her husband in the darkness, Lois told him what had happened to her and how she had escaped. Occasional rumbles of thunder punctuated her recitation. Clark's arms tightened around her as she told of the cold, little room and her struggles to clear the vent, and when she had finished he didn't speak for a minute or two.
"My God," he said at last, and she could hear the catch in his voice. "And they call *me* the super-hero!"
"Clark, I knew something must have happened to keep you from saving me. Was it this?" She reached up to touch his face, gently.
Now it was her turn to listen while he talked. When he had finished she said, after a moment, "So that's what they meant…"
"The spray. It was supposed to be used on Superman if he tried to stop them. I heard them talking. The guy who sprayed you apparently panicked. They were pretty mad at him, I guess. I heard the one called Mitch tell him that if he goofed again he'd be sorry."
"It was an *accident*?"
"Yeah." She turned and put her arm across his chest, holding him tightly.
He stroked her hair. After a few seconds he said, "I suppose I should be happy they don't know how…lucky they were. I guess I am, really, but—"
"Clark—" She put her fingers on his cheek. "What did Dr. Klein say?"
"He isn't sure. Did you know he'd guessed—about me being Superman?"
"Well," Lois said, prosaically, "he knows more about Superman than just about anyone else. He isn't galactically stupid, you know. We discussed telling him if the test came back positive, anyway, remember?"
"Yeah. We probably should have told him before. Anyway, he thinks my eyesight *may*—" he emphasized the word, "—heal on its own."
"That's what he said."
She tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach. "It's been two days. Is there any improvement?"
She felt him shrug. "I'm not sure. I think the shadows are a little more…defined, maybe. It's hard to tell."
"Oh." She was silent for a moment, thinking. "Well, it hasn't been that long."
"Lois, it's been two days! My powers were back in a day!"
"Yeah, but these are your *eyes*, Clark! I think I read somewhere that eye damage takes longer to heal than other kinds."
"Okay, in humans. But you're not so much different, except for your powers. You heal faster than we do, sure, but why shouldn't other things be similar? Your eyes might take a little longer. You're already seeing some difference, aren't you? You said you were."
"Then we don't panic, yet," she said, firmly. "Is that clear?"
He gave a half-hearted chuckle. "Yes, ma'am."
"Good." She hugged him.
"But, Lois, we have to be practical," he said. "What if my eyes don't get better? How happy are you going to be, tied to a blind man?"
Lois closed her hand over his mouth and raised herself on her right elbow, glaring at him in the darkness. She knew he wouldn't see her, but she also knew she had to squash this particular attempt at nobility without delay.
"Oh, and you think I'm in love with you because you can see?" she asked, sarcastically. "Or because of your pretty face, or your fantastic body, or your powers?"
"Good! I'm in love with you because you're Clark Kent, the most wonderful, caring man on *any* world, you idiot! I'd never be happy without you, even if you were deaf, dumb *and* blind! The only thing I *am* afraid of is being *without* you, no matter what condition you may be in. Is that clear?"
"Lois…" His voice sounded choked as he pulled her back into his embrace, but she didn't relax, yet.
"I want you to promise me, on your word of honor, that you're not going to go all noble on me and do something stupid for my own good!"
She saw him smile in the dimness. "I promise. I really promise."
"Good!" She let herself settle down in his arms again and felt them close protectively around her. "We'll handle this however we have to, Clark. Like we always do. Remember what you said to me on Spencer Spencer's island? 'I'm stronger with you than without you?' Together we can do anything."
"I know." His voice was almost inaudible. "I really wasn't going to jump the gun, Lois. You don't have to worry. I just wanted to bring up the subject." For a moment neither of them said anything, then he spoke again. "I could feel you while you were gone, you know. I knew you were alive."
He nodded. "All the time. Just before you called I was sort of…drawn, I guess you could say. I was right above you when you yelled for me. I don't think it was a coincidence."
"In a city this size? I don't see how it could be. Besides," Lois said, "I don't believe in that kind of coincidence."
"Neither do I."
Lois yawned suddenly. "I know this is hard to believe, but I'm tired."
She felt him kiss the top of her head. "I can't understand that at all. It's only five o'clock in the morning."
She giggled, sleepily. "Don't tell me you aren't."
He hugged her, gently. "Go to sleep, honey. I'll be right here when you wake up. I promise."
The rain had stopped when Lois woke, and the sun was high in the sky.
The room itself was dim; the curtains had been pulled against the light, but a stray sunbeam had crept through a tiny gap in the curtains and lay across the pillow. It was that which had awakened her.
She was deliciously warm, which was easily explained by the fact that her husband's arms were still clasped loosely around her, his face was buried in her shoulder and she was snuggled into the curve of his body. She lay still for several minutes, simply luxuriating in the fact that she was back home, safe, and that he was here with her, but then the faintest stirrings of the now familiar morning sickness gave her fair warning that all would not be well in a few moments if she didn't take the necessary actions.
Gently, she disengaged herself from Clark's arms and slid out of bed, trying not to disturb him. She had rarely seen Clark look tired, but even in sleep she could see the lingering fatigue on his face. She planted a light kiss on his forehead and headed for the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, she was seated at the kitchen table eating a breakfast of dry toast, drinking another cup of Clark's herbal tea, prepared this time by Martha, and feeding CJ an afternoon bottle of formula. Martha sat across the table from her, drinking tea as well and smiling at the domestic scene before her. The kitchen clock read 12:14.
"Would you like me to make you more tea?" she asked her daughter-in-law, when she saw Lois's cup was empty.
"No, I'm done." Lois swung CJ around to burp him. "This young man needs a diaper change."
"I'll get a diaper," Martha said. "Oh," she added, as she reached the kitchen door, "Perry called. He wanted you to call him when you get a chance. He said it wasn't urgent, and not to wake you when I told him you and Clark were still sleeping; just for you to call him back."
"I'll do it as soon as I finish with CJ," Lois said.
Jimmy Olsen answered the phone. "Daily Planet."
"Hi, Jimmy, it's Lois. Perry wanted me to call him. Is he around?"
"Lois!" Jimmy sounded surprised and pleased. "How are you doing? The Chief said you got away from those guys. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Lois said. "Can you get him for me, Jimmy?"
"Yeah, just a minute." She held on while the message was relayed, and then Jimmy was back. "He said he'll be with you in a moment, Lois. How's CK?"
"He's doing all right. He's still asleep."
"I guess you guys were up pretty late," Jimmy said. "I'm glad he's feeling better, though. Did you know we had a break-in here last night?"
"What? What happened?"
"Yeah. Poor old Horton was knocked on the head. The day shift found him when they came in this morning. He's in the hospital."
"Is he okay?"
"I don't know. They don't tell me anything," Jimmy said, a note of disgust in his voice.
"Well, what did the burglars get?" Lois asked.
Jimmy hesitated. "Um—maybe Perry'd better…"
"Jimmy! What did they take?"
Jimmy didn't answer at once. "Well, they took Clark's and your computers."
"Um, here's Perry," Jimmy said in a rush, and was gone.
"Hello, Lois," Perry's voice said.
"Perry, Jimmy said someone stole Clark's and my computers?"
"Yeah. Sometime early this morning. Old Horton's in the hospital in critical condition."
"Oh, dear." Lois paused. "Is he going to be okay?"
"They don't know. He's seventy-five, after all."
"Oh, poor Horton."
"Yeah. Do you have any idea what someone might have been after?"
"Not really, Chief. I don't…wait a minute!" She was silent for a moment while she thought.
"You know what it was?"
"Not exactly," Lois said. "But kind of…"
"There's a nice, specific answer." Perry's voice was heavy with irony.
"Well, what I mean is, I sort of know, generally, but what they were looking for wasn't there."
"And that would be…?"
"Probably the information I was kidnapped for. Whoever Mr. X is, he's apparently afraid I may have dug up something incriminating in his past that he wants to keep hidden. I think they're trying to find out if I have it."
"But if it's part of the public record, anybody could find it."
"I know," she said. "But they wanted to know what I'd found and if there was anything I hadn't published. Somehow it's connected, Perry. I can feel it."
Perry grunted. "You're probably right. Now, if you can just figure out how…"
"Clark and I are going to work on it. We want to solve this thing as much as you do."
"All right," Perry said. "Just don't go gettin' yourself killed or kidnapped again."
"Not if I can help it. Was that all you wanted to tell me?"
"No." Perry cleared his throat. "I wanted to let you know what happened after you left the police station last night. It just might tie into all this."
"Well, I stayed for a few minutes to talk to Henderson. About five minutes after you left, in walks John Bancroft, wantin' to see this Mitch guy!"
"No kidding? John Bancroft?" Lois sat up straight. "What happened?"
"Well, considerin' it was after one in the mornin', they wouldn't let him see the prisoner. They told him to come back at a decent hour. But a friend of mine over at the courthouse called me a while ago. Ross was up for a bail hearing this mornin' and Bancroft was representing him. Ross is out on bail as of two hours ago."
"Now *that*," Lois said, slowly, "is *very* interesting."
"I thought so."
"Hmm. I'll tell Clark as soon as he wakes up. This adds a whole new dimension to this thing."
"Yeah. You and Clark watch yourselves, honey."
"Don't worry, Chief, we will. And thanks for the warning. Could you put Jimmy back on before you hang up?"
Her editor apparently put a hand over the receiver, and a moment later Jimmy's slightly apprehensive voice said, "Hello?"
"Hi, Jimmy. I've got some research I need you to do for me. You know the five members of the City Council that were involved in that ticket scandal I wrote about a few days ago?"
"Yeah," Jimmy said.
"I want you to do an in-depth background check on all five, and Mayor Burns, since she was involved, too. I mean, I want to know everything about them, down to which nursery school they attended and what they ate for dinner last night. Understand?"
"Got it. I'll do my best," Jimmy said, sounding resigned.
After she had hung up she glanced at Martha, who had been listening. "Well, that was interesting."
Lois told her.
"Your computers were stolen?" Martha looked shocked.
"It's not as bad as is sounds," Lois said. "Association with your son has had a bad effect on me. I've started backing up my files. I've got everything important here at home. What I found more interesting was the lawyer who showed up for Ross."
"What about him?"
Lois smiled tightly. "John Bancroft has ties to Intergang. Clark and I found that out a while back. We don't have any tangible proof, but we know he works for them. So, why would Intergang send one of its high-powered lawyers for a thug like Mitch unless it's pretty important to them that he not talk?"
"What about Intergang?"
Lois turned, to see Clark, still in his robe, descending the stairs, one hand carefully on the banister. Jonathan Kent was a few steps behind him, also in his night clothes.
"John Bancroft got Mitch out on bail, this morning. What do you think of that?"
"Bancroft? You're kidding! Why would a high-priced lawyer like him worry about someone like Mitch Ross?"
"That's what I'd like to know. And someone broke into the Planet last night, assaulted Horton—the security guard, you know—and stole our computers."
Clark reached the bottom of the steps and came slowly into the living room. "I think somebody is worried about what information we might have in our computers about something they want to keep hidden."
"That's what I figure. I've got Jimmy running a background check on everybody involved in that ticket thing. Maybe that will turn up something."
"Maybe. Whatever it is has got to be pretty well hidden, though." Clark felt around, located a chair and sank into it. "Is Horton all right?"
Martha stood up. "Why don't you fill him in while I get these two some breakfast, Lois?"
A short time later Clark and Jonathan were finishing up breakfast at the kitchen table. The subject had been thoroughly hashed over by the four of them, and Clark sat frowning, sipping the tea which Martha had poured for him. Lois winced, even knowing he was invulnerable. The tea was barely below the boiling point.
"Intergang," he said, slowly. "And some kind of connection to the City Council. Well, it wouldn't be the first time they've tried to take over cities, and even whole countries, by putting their people in sensitive places. It sure could explain why they're so determined to keep this guy's background hidden—and why they wouldn't stop at a little thing like kidnapping and murder when they thought you might know something. It also means you're probably still in danger, Lois."
"Probably," Lois said, trying to push away the tightness in her gut. "At least I've got Superman as a bodyguard."
"Yeah, but they were prepared for that the first time," Clark said. "And it worked, even though they didn't know it. Now I can't even guard you as well as before."
Lois put her hand on top of the fist he had clenched on the table. "Relax, Clark. At least now we're warned. And in some ways you might be an even better bodyguard. They're not going to expect any real threat from a…" She took a breath and said it out loud. "From a blind man. They won't be ready for any trouble from you."
"And I've been thinking about that," she continued, as if he hadn't spoken. "All your other senses are a lot sharper than a human's, right? You've got some advantages over a normal human who can't see."
"I guess so."
"I *know* so! I think we might be able to use that to help you navigate better until your eyes get well."
"Honey," Clark said, quietly, "they might not—"
She interrupted him. "Until we know for certain that they aren't, I'm going to assume that they *are* going to heal," she said. "And I've been thinking. You know how bats and dolphins navigate, locate prey and avoid collisions?"
"Sure. They bounce sound off of…" He stopped.
"Could you do that? Could you use your super-hearing that way—say, with a handclap or a supersonic whistle, or something, and listen for the echoes to tell you where things are?"
Clark's face was a study in blank surprise. The other three were silent, watching him as the surprise faded and chagrin took its place.
"You know, I never thought of that," he said, at last. "I've been listening so hard to things around me that it never occurred to me to try." He shook his head slowly. "Mom and Dad," he continued, "now you've seen the proof. I am an obvious idiot. My wife is a genius, and I can't figure out why she tolerates me."
"Oh, you have your talents," Lois said. "Besides, we don't know for sure this will work."
"Well then, let's see." He raised his hands and clapped them sharply together.
As the sound died away, Martha absently righted the vase of flowers she had placed in the center of the kitchen table that morning, eyes never straying from her son. Lois held her breath, but the look on Clark's face told all of them everything they needed to know.
"It works?" she whispered.
"Yeah." There was an intent expression on his face. "I can pick up the echoes with my super-hearing and…" He pursed his lips, still with that look of concentration.
This time they heard no sound, but Clark began to smile.
"This is going to take some practice," he said. Lois felt an involuntary smile beginning to stretch her lips at the relief in his voice. "It works, though. It really works!"
"There, how do I look?" Clark asked.
Lois turned to examine her husband's outfit. He wore one of the suits he would normally wear to work, neat and professional in every way. Lois surveyed it narrowly for a moment. Clark had managed the job of dressing himself by touch very well, but something wasn't quite right. For several seconds she stared at him, trying to place the feeling.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, suddenly. "Just a minute. I'll be right back!"
She turned and half ran up the stairs to their bedroom. With single-minded determination, she headed for Clark's tie-rack, selected the tie with the loudest geometrical design she could find and returned down the stairs with an air of triumph.
"Hold still," she ordered her husband. He obeyed, obviously puzzled, as Lois removed the sober, matching grey tie and replaced it with the one she had chosen: black, with bright red and yellow interlocking triangles.
"My goodness!" Martha said. "That one kind of dazzles the eye, doesn't it? What was wrong with the grey one?"
"That was the one my dad gave him last Christmas," Lois said. "Plain, grey ties just aren't Clark. There, honey, you look much better."
"That's a matter of opinion," his father observed, with a slight grin, "but if Lois likes it, who am I to argue?"
"The other one just didn't feel right," Lois said. "Now we're ready. Are you sure you don't mind watching CJ for us, Martha?"
"Honey, you just go on ahead and do your job," Martha told her. "Jonathan, CJ and I will do just fine. He's the sweetest baby! Just like Clark was at his age."
"Well, I guess that would follow," Clark said. "We'll see you later, then." He pursed his lips slightly in that silent whistle, then gestured Lois out the front door ahead of him.
"I know it was in Suicide Slum," Lois was saying a short time later, as they maneuvered through the early rush hour traffic. "I mean, you can't mistake the smell. But it was dark, and raining and I couldn't see much. I'm not really sure I can find the place again, but I guess it's worth a try."
"Well," Clark said, "I think I can get us pretty close."
"How?" Lois demanded, in mild exasperation. She cut expertly around a slow-moving truck with the name of a well-known supermarket chain on the side.
"Bibbo's was only a little ways off, to my left," he explained. "Maybe a block or two. I could hear the barroom brawl going full blast."
"Of course," Lois said. "How could I possibly forget Bibbo's? All right, let's cruise around a bit and see if I can spot the place I got cornered. I'd only gotten about a block and a half away from the house where they were holding me, so if we can find where I was when you rescued me, maybe we can backtrack."
"Okay, then. Head for Bibbo's. From there we can try a search pattern and I'll tell you when it sounds right to me."
"There's probably no fight going on right now," Lois pointed out.
"That's okay. There's no place anywhere that sounds quite like Bibbo's Ace o' Clubs," Clark assured her with confidence. "I could recognize it in my sleep."
Unable to find fault with this reasoning, Lois fell silent as they wove through the traffic into sections of Metropolis which grew steadily more decrepit. At last, she said, "Okay, we're here. Bibbo's is—"
"Right in front of us," Clark said. "Believe me, I can smell it. Which direction are we facing?"
"Then go right a block or two."
It took them half an hour to locate the alley where Clark had found her, and after that another hour for her to retrace the path of her desperate flight the night before. But when they did find the ancient, boarded-up tenement, Lois was in no doubt at all about the accuracy of her selection.
"This is it," she said, with quiet certainty. "There's the basement window I crawled out of."
"Then let's get inside. I don't hear anyone in there. Is anyone watching us?"
Lois glanced around at the few scruffy people moving about within their sight. "Nobody that I can see."
Lois saw him purse his lips unobtrusively and smiled. Superman was practicing his new method of navigation, and it appeared to be working for he moved with confidence beside her, up the dingy, peeling wooden steps to the door. A little judicious application of super-strength, and the door knob turned. They entered.
The entry hall was littered with trash, dried mud, cigarette butts and tracked-in debris. The ancient linoleum, all too familiar to Lois, was cracked and peeling. She took a deep breath and started forward, Clark right behind her.
"Honey, are you all right?" His voice, sounding slightly concerned, startled her.
"Are you all right? Your heart rate has gone way up."
There were definite disadvantages to having him depend so completely on his hearing, she reflected. "I'm all right, Clark. Just…seeing this all again is a little…upsetting."
He put an arm around her waist. "I can understand that. If it's too much, you don't have to stay."
"Clark, I'm fine! Just because I'm pregnant doesn't mean I've suddenly turned into china!" She regarded his worried expression in mild exasperation. "Honestly, Superman, you're getting to be a worry-wart!"
He gave a sheepish grin. "Sorry, honey."
"It's okay. Just don't do it again."
"I'll try not to," he temporized. "You can't blame a guy, though, when it's something this important."
"Well, try to keep it under control," she said. "Come on."
The entry-way gave onto a hall, crossing at right angles at its end. On one end was a coat closet, the door hanging from one hinge. In the other direction the hall ran for a short distance before ending in storage cupboards, also with broken doors, and on the left it opened on what must pass, in this place, for a living room. A thin, shabby, green shag rug carpeted the floor of an area perhaps fifteen feet by twenty. A window in one wall was broken and boarded over in a familiar manner, and tattered curtains hung to either side of it. A couple of battered chairs, a sofa with patently broken springs and a table with water rings in the flaking varnish was the only furniture the room contained. Several beer cans and cigarette butts lay scattered around, and the debris from a local fast food restaurant was crumpled on the table. Flies were crawling over it.
Lois backed hastily out, trying to control her suddenly unruly stomach. Her foot contacted some small, hard object and sent it skidding across the linoleum of the hall floor. Curiously, she bent to see what it was that she had kicked.
It was an earring, one of the white, button-like clip-on earrings worn by many professional women Lois had met in the course of her job. She even had a pair, herself.
"What is it?" Clark asked.
"It's an earring," she said, slowly. "And it hasn't been here long. It doesn't have any dirt on it."
She dropped the earring into the pocket of her coat. "Let's hurry up and finish. I don't like this place."
"Me, neither. Does anything look familiar?"
"Not this part of it. Most of the time I was out of the room I was blindfolded, remember. Come on."
More quickly now, they continued on down the short hall. This part looked suddenly familiar. A tiny bathroom opened on her right and ahead, to her left, the door now gaping half open, was the room where she had been confined. She started toward it, her footsteps loud on the peeling linoleum.
Clark's hand on her arm stopped her. "Wait, Lois. Let me go first."
"Huh?" She looked up at him in surprise, to see his head lifted and his nostrils twitch like a hound sniffing the air.
"I smell blood." He stepped past her, nudged the door wider with a puff of his super-breath and entered, Lois on his heels.
There was someone sitting in the ancient armchair with the spring protruding from the cushion.
Already suspecting what she would find, Lois moved around to get a front view of the dead man. She was not disappointed.
"It's Mitch," she said. "He's been shot."
"You know," Henderson said, "in my naivete, I sort of expected you two to take at least one day off before you went out and started discovering bodies, but I guess that must have been too much to ask."
Lois closed the conference room door behind them, shutting out the sounds of the busy newsroom. "Henderson, we wanted to find the place where I was held. You know as well as we do that evidence disappears pretty darn fast sometimes, and these people apparently have a lot to hide. I mean, why kill Mitch unless they were afraid he'd talk if someone applied a little pressure?"
Henderson grunted. "As a matter of fact, after you'd left one of my boys found an incendiary device connected to a timer in the basement. Whoever's behind this means business."
"I think that's pretty obvious," Clark said, quietly.
Lois saw Henderson glance uncomfortably at Clark. "Yeah," he admitted. "I suppose so."
"Anything on the earring?" she asked.
"A little," Henderson said. "It's a woman's clip-on earring. Half the women in the city have them. The lab's got it. It's a good thing, by the way, that you picked it up by the clip. There's a fingerprint on it, as yet unidentified. Like I promised, I'll let you know what we find as long as I have your word not to print anything without permission."
"Of course not!" Lois said, irritably. "You know us better than that, Henderson!"
"Take it easy, Lois," Henderson said, with uncharacteristic mildness. "I really wasn't trying to insult you."
"Oh, I know." She pressed her fingers to her temples where the beginnings of a tension headache was making itself known. "I've just had sort of a rough week. And don't you dare laugh, Clark!"
"Wouldn't think of it," Clark assured her. "Although only you would describe the week we've had as 'sort of' rough. Between Luthor blowing up our car, breaking into our house, trying to kidnap our son and your being kidnapped twice by two different people—"
Lois surprised a faint grin on Henderson's mouth and glared at him. The Inspector sobered at once, although she could have sworn she could see the glint of amusement in his eyes.
"Anyhow," Henderson went on, "that's the story as of now. These people play for keeps. Be careful."
"We will, Inspector," Clark said. "Thanks for the information."
After Henderson had left the newsroom, Lois made her way to her desk and sank into her chair, rubbing the back of her neck. Her computer had not yet been replaced and the desk surface looked empty without it. Clark was similarly seated at his desk, tapping a pencil against its surface.
"Lois," he said, suddenly, "that earring. I've been thinking."
"So have I," she said. "You know, I never saw Mr. X. I was always blindfolded, and he'd distorted his voice. There must have been a reason. I figured it was because he knew I'd recognize him."
"Probably. If you got away—and you did—you'd have identified him. But what if he is a she?"
"Just what I was thinking," she said. "I guess great minds do think alike." She turned. "Jimmy!"
Jimmy appeared from the copy room. "Yeah?"
"How's that research coming?"
"I've got some preliminary stuff on them right at the moment. Why?"
"Give us what you have, and then we want you to concentrate on the women."
"Sure. That cuts it down by half, anyway." Jimmy vanished back into the copy room again, but a few moments later he dropped a sheaf of computer printout on Lois's desk.
"Here you are. I arranged them alphabetically."
"Thanks, Jimmy." She riffled through the sheets. "There's not much more here than what I had."
"Yeah. I said it's just preliminary. I've got a search program running, though. I'll probably have more for you by tomorrow."
"Well, let's see what you've got." She squinted at the first sheet. "I think you need more toner for this printer, Jimmy. It's a little hard to read. Hmm…Jennifer Anderson…46 years old, married three times, divorced twice, three kids…elected to the City Council last year…" Clark had scooted his chair over next to hers, and she read the information aloud for his benefit. "Not too remarkable…wait a minute. She used to be on the Metropolis School Board. Five years ago she got caught in a scandal when the money the voters approved for renovating the Bankford Elementary School classrooms was used to redecorate the Principal's office and add a private bathroom. The Principal was her cousin."
"Huh! How did she get elected to the City Council, then?" Clark asked.
"It was blamed on a clerical error," Jimmy said.
"I'll bet." Lois shuffled the papers. "Mayor Burns. Madeline Burns. She's 45, married only two years ago and had a baby just before last Christmas. She was on the City Council for twelve years before she ran for mayor last year and was elected on a platform of fighting city corruption. Pretty clean record, actually; no political scandals to speak of—oh, there was a minor one ten years ago. Some question of an audit of City accounts, but it apparently never went anywhere. She wasn't even involved in the ticket scandal as much as the others, you know. One of the other members of the City Council brought it to her attention and she just sort of looked the other way. Let's see, what else…she was an anti-war activist in the early 70s, arrested once, but the charges were dropped, and went into politics right after that. Apparently she's always been a strong opponent of the death penalty, too, and an advocate for human rights. She'd already formed an exploratory committee to evaluate her prospects for the governorship in the next election, before this scandal broke."
"Interesting political history," Clark said. "And the other one…what's her name, Saunders?"
"Marianne Saunders, age 52," Lois said. "She's not married, been on the City Council for ten years, and a career politician. She survived a recall vote three years ago when she was found to be involved in a scheme to divert money from the homeless shelters to a redevelopment project that would have benefitted her brother-in-law's construction company. She claimed she was misinformed as to the goals of the project and blamed a fellow City Councilman, who was subsequently sacked by the voters for spearheading the project, even though the evidence pointed to her. I remember that! I exposed the whole scheme…you know, we've got a nice batch here."
"I don't think I even want to know about the others," Clark said. "I'm surprised the City runs as well as it does if this is a sample of the people who govern it. About the only one I'd care to associate with is Mayor Burns. Her record's fairly clean, considering."
Jimmy grinned. "Maybe she's covering up some horrible crime in her past and was afraid Lois would expose it."
Lois shook her head. "It would have to be a real doozy to be worth all this." She glanced at the printout again. "As soon as you get the rest of the info, I want it, Jimmy. So far, all we've got is a list of pretty typical sleazy politicians. Whatever this person is afraid of, the clue has got to be in their background, somewhere. All we have to do is recognize it."
The weather had turned distinctly cooler than it had been a week ago, Lois reflected as she and Clark headed for the Jeep, parked some distance away from the elevators in the Planet's underground lot. And the fact that this place was under cover didn't seem to affect the temperature in here at all. If anything it might even be a little cooler than completely outdoors and, after the things that had happened to them in here in the past week or so, Lois was strongly considering the advisability of parking the Jeep regularly on the street, unless the weather was unusually bad.
She inserted her key into the lock on the driver's door and turned it. She was tired; she hated to admit it, but she really hadn't recovered completely from her ordeal of the past few days, not to mention the fact that her early pregnancy was draining her energy more than she liked.
"Lois! Don't get in!" Clark's sharp voice startled her. Without thinking, she backed hurriedly away from the vehicle.
There was a sudden swirl of wind, and Clark, in the familiar blue and red uniform, jerked open the hood and removed a small object which seemed to consist mainly of wires. Another rush of air, and he was gone. She had started to follow when the sound of an explosion reached her ears. Wearily, she leaned against the fender of a sports car parked across the aisle and shook her head in disbelief. This kind of thing was getting to be a real irritant, and she'd had it. Somebody was going to pay.
"I can't *believe* that they impounded our new Jeep as *evidence*!" Lois's irritation had subsided not at all as the taxi pulled up in front of 348 Hyperion Avenue a little over an hour later. The sun had long since set, and even Clark's patience was growing thin as they exited the taxi and ascended the stairs to the townhouse.
Martha had apparently been on the watch for them, for the door opened as they reached the top of the steps and her voice said, "What on earth happened? We heard about the bomb on TV."
"Someone's pretty unhappy with us," Clark said. "They planted a bomb in the Jeep, but I heard the timer start up when Lois unlocked the door, and got rid of it. The police impounded the Jeep temporarily for evidence, though."
"I've had it up to here!" Lois announced, and her voice was still crackling with anger. "No more! Whoever is behind this has gone too far when they try to blow up my brand new car! I haven't even had it for a week yet!"
"Lois is a bit upset," Clark said.
"Yeah, I can tell," his father's voice said. "Come on in and have some dinner. You'll feel better with a full stomach."
"I'll feel better when this…" Lois bit off the word. "I'll feel better when this *person* is behind bars!"
"Lois," Clark said, "try to calm down. Losing your temper isn't going to help."
He could hear his wife take a deep breath and forcibly blow it out. "Oh, I know, Clark, but I'm so *tired* of having various people targeting us for stupid reasons. I mean, we wouldn't have had any idea there was anything to investigate if they'd left us alone!"
"I guess we've got the kind of reputation that scares them," Clark said, trying for a lighter tone.
"I guess." Her voice sounded suddenly depressed. He moved over to put his arms around her.
"Honey, we'll get through this, I promise. Hey," he teased, "is this the Lois Lane who found a way for me to get around without being able to see?"
She sniffled, and suddenly burst into tears. Clark's own irritation vanished in the urgent need to comfort his wife. He pulled her close and held her against him. "Honey, it's okay, really. It'll work out. Henderson'll get the Jeep back to us, and we'll solve this before long."
He heard his parents' retreating footsteps and thanked them silently for their perception. "Lois, sweetheart, what's wrong? Can I help?"
"I don't know, Clark!" she wailed. "I don't even *know* what's wrong!"
He cradled her against him tucking her head under his chin. "I think *I* might."
"What? And don't tell me it's because I'm pregnant!"
"Well, maybe only indirectly." He hugged her. "I realize this is heresy where you're concerned, but you don't think it could possibly be because you're *tired*, do you?" She tried to look up at him but he continued to hold her tightly. "I mean, you've only been through a couple of weeks that would half-kill most people, and you not only came through it pretty much in one piece, you're still on your feet and fighting. I think you owe yourself a little rest. After all, even *Superman* gets tired sometimes."
For what seemed like forever, but was actually only a few minutes, Lois was absolutely still in his arms, then she moved to free herself and he released her. "Sometimes you're so smart it scares me."
"It comes from working so hard to keep up with you." He leaned down and kissed her. "Come on. Let's go get some of that dinner Mom made for us, play with our little boy, relax for a while and forget about this mess for tonight. Maybe we could even think of something to do a little later, too—in private."
"You know," Lois said, "that sounds awfully nice right now."
"It does, doesn't it?" He put his arm around her waist. "Shall we go?"
"You just sit right there with Clark, and feed CJ," Martha said. "Jonathan and I will take care of the dishes." She handed Lois the remote control. "Here. Put your feet up and relax."
When Martha had vanished into the kitchen, Lois tuned in a news channel and settled against Clark, CJ in her arms, to watch the news.
"How are your eyes doing, Clark?" she asked. "Are you seeing any improvement at all?"
"It's hard to tell, but I think maybe," he said. "I'm supposed to see Dr. Klein in the morning for him to check them."
"I'm going along," she said. CJ slurped on his bottle in a contented way and Lois rested her head against Clark. He slipped his arm around her shoulders.
"You know," he said. "I could do with more evenings like this one."
"You and me, both," she agreed. "Oh, there's the Mayor. Carmen Alverado's interviewing her."
"I thought we weren't going to think about business tonight," Clark said.
"It's just about the new convention center they're opening next week." Lois watched the screen with half her attention. "As usual, the whole City Council's there, taking credit for the project."
"Weren't they against it in the beginning?" Clark asked. "It took an independent initiative to force it through, if I remember correctly."
"Since when do inconvenient facts get in the way of politicians on the make?" Lois asked. "Wait a minute!"
"There's Marianne Saunders! She's wearing a pair of earrings like the one I found in the tenement!"
"Lois, Henderson said half the women in the city have earrings like that."
Lois relaxed back into the curve of his body again. "Yeah, I guess you're right. But she's still on my suspect list."
"Of course. All three of them are. But let's not think about them tonight. How's CJ doing with his bottle?"
"He's just about finished…and just about out. Let me burp him and get him ready for bed, and then we can talk about those other activities you were mentioning earlier…"
"Okay, Clark, look straight ahead," Bernard Klein said. "Can you see any difference?"
"It's brighter," Clark said. "What are you doing?"
"I'm looking at your corneas. Are *you* seeing any improvement, yourself?"
"The shadows are definitely sharper," Clark said.
"Good. That's consistent with what I'm seeing," Dr. Klein said. "Your corneas are less cloudy than they were when I first examined them. Some healing seems to be taking place."
"But why so slowly?" Clark asked. "I usually heal much more quickly than this! Dr. Klein, *are* my eyes going to get well?"
The scientist was silent for what seemed forever, trying to decide upon the best way to phrase his answer. Finally he said, "I don't know, Clark. Your healing abilities are well beyond that of Earth creatures, but I don't know if you're going to be able to repair all the damage. You've already done more than any human would be able to do."
"At this point," Clark said, a trifle grimly,"I'll take anything I can get."
"I can understand that," Dr. Klein said.
"What I want to know," Lois said, "is if you have any alternatives if his eyes don't return to normal! Do you have any idea what it will mean to Metropolis, not to say the *world* if Superman is blind, Dr. Klein?"
Dr. Klein felt himself squirming uncomfortably under Lois's glare, and wondered, not for the first time, why it had taken him so long to figure out the truth about Clark Kent, since it was painfully obvious to anyone with half a brain that the only husband fit for Lois Lane was a superman. And, at that, it seemed that sometimes even he had a difficult time with her. On the other hand, no one who had her in their corner could ever say they didn't have a formidable ally.
"Lois, I'm sure Dr. Klein has every idea of what it would mean," Clark began. Klein nodded vigorously.
"Yes, well, do you? Have any alternative ideas, I mean?" she persisted.
"I'm exploring some possibilities," he said. "With luck it will never come to that. I'm seeing some significant improvement in the four days since it happened. I want you back here tomorrow morning, Clark, so I can have another look."
"I'll be here," Clark said. "Have you made any progress with that other thing?"
"What other thing?" Lois asked.
"The police gave me the job of analyzing the stuff on the handkerchief Jimmy used to wipe off Clark's face," Dr. Klein said. "I told them that Kryptonite in the eyes was quite toxic to humans as well as Superman."
"Well, what else is there to know?" Lois asked. "It was powdered Kryptonite, right?"
"Yes," Clark told her, "but we need to know a few other things about it. Where it came from, for one thing."
"You see," Klein told her, in his best professorly manner, "I've analyzed only a few pieces of Kryptonite—fortunately for Clark there aren't many of them—but each piece has had slightly different trace element content…"
"English, Dr. Klein," Clark said.
"Of course. Sorry." Dr. Klein harrumphed and started over. "Each piece has had slightly different impurities, except the ones that were broken off from the parent chunk. We need to know if this one is from a different source or if it came from a piece we've already accounted for. Naturally, we hope it's from a known source, because otherwise there's another piece of Kryptonite out there in the hands of criminals. None of us want that."
"No, I can see that." Lois had paled slightly at the thought.
"Easy, Lois," Clark said. "Let's not borrow trouble."
"I'll let you know as soon as I'm sure," Dr. Klein assured them, quickly. "Don't forget to come back tomorrow. Oh, by the way…" he added, as another thought occurred to him. "I'll want you in here for those other tests, too, just as soon as things settle down a bit. I'm anxious to find out what went wrong with the first set, since it's obvious something did…" He glanced at Lois and felt himself blush to the hairline…or where his hairline had once been. To his amazement he saw that Superman…Clark…was blushing, too. The only one who seemed unaffected was Lois.
"Well," he said, hastily, "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Um, right." Clark said. "Come on, honey. We've got an investigation to finish."
"Here's the photos you wanted, Lois," Jimmy said. He dropped a large envelope on her desk. "I enlarged them like you asked. Do you really think the City Council could be involved in something like this?"
"No," Lois said. "Just one of them. Although, with what I've learned about them in the past couple of days I wonder if the worst crooks in the city aren't the ones running it."
Jimmy laughed. "Yeah. After that research I did for you, I have to admit you've got a point."
Clark rolled his chair over to her desk. "What have you got?"
"Photos," Lois said. "The Mayor and the two councilwomen. Jimmy blew them up for me." She opened the envelope. "Here's one of Mayor Burns at that ribbon-cutting last month. Clark, she's wearing a pair of those white earrings!"
"Well," Clark said, "that's two out of three."
"Yeah." Lois dumped the remaining photos out onto her desk. "Hmm—here's Saunders again…no earrings, but we saw her with a pair of them on television last night. Another of Mayor Burns…here's one of Anderson. Oh, heck! She's got a pair, too."
"Oh, well," Clark said, "back to square one."
"Not yet." Lois reached for the phone. "I've got an idea. I'm going to try to arrange an interview with each of them."
"You're kidding. After that article you did on them, do you think any of them will agree to an interview?" Clark asked.
"Probably not. But maybe I can throw a scare into the guilty one. Her thugs haven't found my so-called evidence, and she must know I haven't turned it over to the police. If you were in her shoes, what would you think I was up to?"
"Blackmail?" Jimmy suggested.
"Exactly. And being the kind of people they are, they'd believe it, too. The ones who aren't guilty won't have any idea what I'm talking about, but the guilty one…"
"It sounds kind of dangerous," Jimmy said, a little doubtfully.
"That's why we'll alert Superman to keep an eye on us," Lois said. "I think it's got a pretty good chance of working, don't you, Clark?"
The expression on Clark's face didn't seem to indicate a great deal of confidence in the plan. "Lois, I don't know. This might not be such a good idea."
"Clark, it can't possibly increase our danger. They tried to blow us up, yesterday!"
"Well, yeah, I guess." Clark still sounded doubtful.
"Well, if Superman's watching you it ought to be okay," Jimmy said. "Unless they've still got that K-spray stuff they used on you, Clark. Dr. Klein said it's pretty toxic to humans, too. How are you doing, by the way? Are your eyes any better?"
"Some," Clark said. "My doctor says it's going to take a while."
"But they're going to get better?"
"We hope so," Clark said. "I might not be much of a reporter if I can't see."
"Clark, it's not your eyes that make you a great reporter," Perry said from behind them, "it's your brain, your talent and your partner, and you've still got all three of those. Metropolis hasn't seen the end of Clark Kent, award-winning investigative journalist, even if you never get any of your sight back. The rest of us know it, even if you don't."
Lois could have kissed Perry for that, and would have if they hadn't been in public. "That's just what I've been trying to tell him, Perry."
Her boss cleared his throat and looked embarrassed. "Nothin' but the truth," he said. "Jimmy, have you got the photos of the Electronics Trade Exposition ready for the Business Section, yet?"
"Well," Lois said into the phone, "it's too bad Ms. Saunders feels that way. Please tell her that I think we might be able to come to a satisfactory arrangement over the whole unfortunate episode if she could find time to see me. You have my cell phone number if she changes her mind. Thank you." She hung up. "There! That ought to do it!"
"It'll do something, all right," Clark said. "I'm still not sure this is a good idea, Lois."
"If one of them takes the bait it will be worth it. This cat and mouse stuff is driving me crazy."
"I know," Clark said. "And you're right. We have to stop her one way or the other—assuming, of course, that we're right about this and it is one of the women."
"Well, there's nothing to do now but wait," Lois said. She glanced at her watch. "It's nearly noon. Shall we get some lunch?"
"I guess." Clark stood up and pushed his chair back under his desk. "How about Pedro's?"
"All right." Lois made sure her cell phone was in her purse, let him take her arm and together they headed for the elevator.
They had finished lunch and were headed back for the Jeep when Lois's cell phone rang.
"Well, that was quick," she said as she dug it out of her purse. "Hello?"
A familiar voice said, "Hello, this is Bernard Klein."
"Oh, Dr. Klein."
"You sound disappointed, Lois," Dr. Klein said.
"Oh…no, I was expecting someone else. What can I do for you, Dr. Klein?"
"Well," the scientist said, "I have that information I was talking about this morning, Lois. Is Clark anywhere around?"
"He's right here," Lois said, glancing at her husband. "Do you need to talk to him?"
"Actually, all I need is for him to hear this. Just tell him to listen. The Kryptonite is from the piece we have here in S.T.A.R. Labs. It's an exact match."
"*What*?" She opened the door of the Jeep one-handed, slid onto the seat and shut the door. "Clark, listen in on this call, okay? Dr. Klein says the Kryptonite…"
"I heard, Lois." Clark slammed the Jeep's door on his own side. "I don't quite understand. It's from the lab's sample?"
"That's what he said. You *did* say it's from the lab's sample, Dr. Klein? Did I hear that right?"
"You heard me." Dr. Klein's voice was very sober. "The Kryptonite in that spray came from the piece of green Kryptonite we have here in the vault at the lab."
"But…how is that possible? The piece is still there, isn't it?"
"Wait a minute," Clark said. "Not *all* of it is still there."
"What are you talking about, Clark?" Lois asked.
"Do you remember when Jerry White used the Red Kryptonite to throw my powers out of control?"
Lois nodded. "Yes, but I…ohmigod. The bullet."
"The bullet. Dr. Klein never got that one little piece back, did he?"
"Did you, Dr. Klein?" she asked into the phone.
"Did I what?"
"Sorry. Did you get the piece of Kryptonite back that they used to make that bullet with?"
"No," Dr. Klein said. "It vanished. That's what I think the spray must have been made from. It was only a tiny piece. That's probably why it was made into an aerosol by whoever found it."
"But who would that have been?" Lois asked. "It could have been anyone!"
"Maybe." Clark's voice sounded grim. "But I just thought of something. In the first place, a civil official can't arbitrarily order a civilian killed. Ordering an assassination is forbidden under the law. Even the President can't do such a thing, much less a Mayor. No one ever pressed it, but what Mayor Burns tried to have done to Superman was illegal."
"Whatever happened to her opposition to the death penalty?" Lois asked slowly. "Do you suppose her original ideals could have changed that much?"
"People do change," Clark said.
"True," Lois said. "But there's another possibility—that she deliberately tried to use that situation to get rid of Superman. Clark, this is really out there, and you're probably going to think I'm crazy, but what if the woman in the Mayor's office isn't Madeline Burns?"
"What?" Clark said. He turned toward her, in real surprise. "Lois, I know we figured our suspect is probably a tool of Intergang, but…"
"Look at the facts a minute, Clark. She was in the anti-war movement. She campaigned against the death penalty, and she was actually a fairly clean politician—and then she turned around and got the Kryptonite from S.T.A.R.. Labs and had a piece taken off to make a bullet to murder Superman—one of the most effective forces for law and order in the world—even though you hadn't hurt anyone. You damaged property by accident, yes, but that isn't a capital offense. They don't sentence people to die for that—heck, they don't even do that with people who kill other people by accident, which you never did. It was as if she was looking for an excuse to have you killed. That's a pretty big character change."
"Well, there's always the argument that killing me isn't murder, Lois. I'm not human."
Lois made a rude noise. "Nonsense. Human or not, no one can argue that you aren't an intelligent being. You testified in a murder trial—mine—and no one objected. They swore you in. No one is going to swear in a monkey! And they court-martialed Colonel Cash for what he did when you fought Lord Nor. You've even been given honorary citizenship in many of the free countries all over the world! Mayor Burns knew what she was doing was illegal, not to mention wrong. If it hadn't been for Dr. Klein she might have succeeded." She stopped. "Oops, Dr. Klein!" She lifted the phone to her ear again. "Sorry, Dr. Klein. We got kind of distracted. Thanks for letting us know. We'll get back to you, okay?"
"Sure, Lois," Dr. Klein said. "I'll talk to you later." As Lois removed the phone from her ear she could have sworn she heard the scientist burst into laughter before the phone went dead.
Clark was frowning. "I have to admit you have a point, but going from that to the possibility that she's not Madeline Burns is kind of a stretch."
"It just seems to me that she did a complete about-face. Of course, if Intergang is pulling her strings, I suppose that could account for it, but I just have a—I don't know, call it reporter's intuition, okay? We can at least try to check it out."
"Yeah, we can do that. Let's get back to the office."
"Okay, here's what you asked for," Jimmy was saying a couple of hours later. "I found some of the earliest pictures of Mayor Burns—the ones taken when she was first elected to the City Council, way back when. Why do you want them?"
"I want to compare them to the current ones, Jimmy. I'm looking for something."
"Lois has a pretty wild theory," Clark said, "but it makes a weird sort of sense. Jimmy, I've been thinking—Madeline Burns was arrested in the early seventies; the charges were dropped, but her fingerprints would still be on file, somewhere. Do you think your dad could get us a copy of them?"
"I guess I could ask." Jimmy's voice still sounded puzzled. "I'll see what I can do."
"Aha!" Lois's voice held a note of triumph. "There it is! I *knew* it!"
"What?" Jimmy asked.
"Right here! See these pictures?"
"Yeah. That's Mayor Burns."
"No, that's Councilwoman Burns, thirteen years ago, to be exact," Lois said. "Look at her ears."
"Her ears! Specifically, her earlobes!"
Jimmy leaned over Lois's desk. "Okay. What am I looking for?"
"In this picture," Lois said, patiently, "you can see her ears. She has attached earlobes."
"Yes? So what?"
"So, here's a picture of her as she is today. Look at the earlobes."
Silence. Finally Jimmy said, "They're not the same."
"No, they're not. That Madeline Burns and the Mayor, today, aren't the same person."
"They look a lot alike," Jimmy said.
"Yeah, my double looked a lot like me, too, but she wasn't me. My guess is that the real Madeline Burns was replaced by Intergang not long after they targeted Metropolis for their next takeover and before she ran for Mayor. Jimmy, after you've talked to your dad, I want you to find me every picture of Madeline Burns that you can, from as many years as possible, between this first one and the current ones. I want to know the approximate time the switch was made. And, I want to know if any known female criminals died at about the same time. This is just a hunch, but maybe we can figure out who she is."
"I think we should take a closer look at the funding behind her mayoral campaign, too," Clark said. "If we're going to prove this we'll need to have our evidence pretty solidly lined up."
An hour later, Lois was saying, "That's it. This picture is the last one Jimmy could find of the real Madeline Burns. It was taken in September of 1994, The next one, two months later, is the replacement. Sometime in that two months, Madeline Burns was probably killed and replaced by the imposter—somebody who looked just like her, or who'd had plastic surgery, and was enough of an actress that she was able to fool the other members of the City Council. It wasn't very long afterwards that Intergang began to make its presence known in Metropolis."
"The timing is right," Clark said. "No wonder they were afraid of what you might have discovered when you started researching Madeline Burns's background, Lois. Who else would have made a leap of faith like that and figured it out? Now, the question is, was it Burns—or whoever she really is—or Intergang that came after us?"
"That's a good question," Lois said. "I think they must have used their people to create the K-spray. Killing or disabling Superman is probably pretty high on their agenda. And they must have sent Bancroft to bail Mitch out."
"But that part was no risk," Clark pointed out. "We can't prove anything, and they know it. You know, it kind of sounds to me as if they consider her semi-expendable. If they ordered her to have Superman killed with that Kryptonite bullet, they must have known what would have happened if she succeeded. She'd have been arrested, but Superman would have been out of their hair. Probably a good trade, from their point of view."
"Yes, but they wouldn't just throw away their investment without results, would they? Now, I mean?"
"It depends," Clark said. "I think they'd support her as long as they thought it was worth it. But if they decided her position might have been compromised beyond repair, they just might tell her to deal with it herself. She wouldn't dare talk, either way."
"Then it sounds to me as if Burns is the one who started this thing, with an assist from her bosses," Lois said. "It was probably her, there in the house, asking me those questions. I don't see who else it could have been, really."
"It's hard to believe she'd do that to you," Jimmy said. "I thought she was sort of a friend of yours."
"Superman thought so, too, Jimmy," Clark said. "Then she tried to have him killed."
"Yeah." Jimmy shook his head. "You think you know people. I guess you shouldn't take anyone at face value."
Before Lois could reply, the phone on her desk rang. She reached over to pick it up. "Hello?"
"Hello, Lois, it's Martha," her mother-in-law's voice said.
"Martha? Is everything all right? You sound a little strange."
"It must be the phone," Martha's voice said. "You need to come home, Lois. CJ's terribly sick."
For a moment, Lois couldn't believe she'd heard correctly. "CJ's sick? But…"
"I think the milk may have disagreed with him," Martha continued. "I think you need to come home and take him to his pediatrician."
Lois looked up at Clark. "She says CJ's sick and we need to take him to the doctor."
Her husband's expression held an arrested look, and suddenly what Martha was saying made terrible sense. Madeline Burns must have been frightened by her earlier phone call with its apparent threat of blackmail, and had made the next move.
"I'll be there as quickly as I can," she said, and hung up.
"They're at the house," Clark said. "They've got CJ and my parents."
"Clark, what are we going to do?"
"The first thing is not to panic." Clark reached out and found her hand. "Jimmy, tell Perry we had to go out."
"What's the matter?" Jimmy asked. The young photojournalist looked from Lois to Clark and back. "'They'! You mean those Intergang guys? I'll call the police!"
"No, Jimmy!" Lois grabbed his wrist. "If the police show up, CJ and Clark's parents could be killed! Trust us, okay? Just tell Perry we had to leave."
"Jimmy, we don't have time to argue!"
"I'm going to get hold of Superman," Clark assured him, quickly. "Just don't alert the police—at least give us half an hour, okay?"
Reluctantly, Jimmy nodded, and together Lois and Clark headed for the ramp.
Disdaining the elevator, they ducked into the stairwell and an instant later they were launching from the roof of the great newspaper's headquarters with a sonic boom that shook the ground and cracked several windows. Clutched tightly against her husband's body for maximum protection, Lois didn't try to talk, but closed her eyes and held tightly to him as they closed the distance between their place of work and their home in split seconds.
Hovering in the air above the townhouse, Lois was perfectly still as her husband listened. At last he nodded his head.
"There's three of them there. Two men and a woman."
"Would Burns come, herself?" Lois asked.
"Maybe. If I were in her shoes, I'd be getting worried about my bosses right now. She probably thinks you're trying to blackmail her and Intergang isn't exactly lenient when their people foul up. Remember what happened to Martin Snell? If she's getting scared, she might decide to handle it in person." Clark's head was cocked as he listened to the voices only he could hear in the townhouse below. "It's Burns, all right. I can hear six heartbeats, though. Mom, Dad and CJ are still okay."
"What are we going to do?" she asked.
"*You're* going to stay outside this time. You've got our baby to protect." He rested a hand lightly on her still flat abdomen. "*I'm* going in there. Like you said a couple of days ago, who would think I'm dangerous? I'm *blind*!"
"Clark, they've probably got the K-spray in there!"
"Yes, but they won't want to waste it on a blind man. They've got it in case Superman shows up, and he isn't going to. Once I'm in there I'll get CJ and my parents out."
Lois knew he was right, though all her instincts rebelled. This time, and until their baby was born, this kind of action was off limits to her, and even afterwards she would have to strictly repress her tendency to "dangle over the jaws of death", as that social worker had once described it. Others were depending on her now.
"All right," she said. "But *please* be careful!"
He smiled and cupped her face in his free hand, then, without a word, he kissed her, hard. When he drew back, she was gasping slightly for breath, and the smile on his face had vanished. In its place was a look of pure determination.
"Lois," he said, very softly, but with an edge of steel in his voice, "I have my wife whom I love waiting for me, my son, and my mom and dad depending on me. I'll do what I have to, to protect them all…and God help the man—or woman—who tries to stand in my way."
Feeling his way carefully, conscious of the possibility of observation, Clark Kent slowly climbed the steps to the townhouse. Clear and sharp to his hearing came the warning from one of the invaders inside his home. "Act natural. If he suspects anything, he's dead. We only really need one of you alive. Got it?"
Fumbling a little, he unlocked the door, opened it, and stepped cautiously within. "Mom?" he called. "Dad?"
"In here, son." Jonathan's voice answered him. Clark pursed his lips carefully in a silent whistle, locating every person in the room. There was his mother, sitting on the sofa with CJ in her arms. His father was in the armchair to their left. Seated at ease in the room's second armchair was a woman, and the two men stood next to her.
Another silent whistle. He listened to the echoes with attention for the smallest detail. The sound bounced from metal—the two men were armed with hand weapons, he thought, but the woman was not. He had the two men to deal with; with them out of the way the danger the woman represented was minimal. No…not quite. In her hand the woman carried something small, metallic and cylindrical. The Kryptonite spray.
He came across the rug, one hand stretched before him until he felt the back of the couch. "Mom?"
"Right here, Clark." His mother's voice sounded calm. "We have visitors."
"Oh, really?" He raised his head.
"Yes. This is Ms. Burns, Mr. Jones and Mr. Brown." Martha's voice was slightly ironic. "They were waiting to see Lois."
"Lois was at the Planet when I left," Clark said. "I had an appointment at the eye clinic. Fred Watkins just dropped me off here." He moved around the sofa, feeling his way with slightly exaggerated clumsiness, placing his body between the gunmen and his mother and son. There was a hasty movement on the part of one of the men, then stillness.
"This is my son, Clark," Martha said. "He was recently blinded in an accident. You'd better sit down, honey."
"Yeah, I've heard of him," said a male voice. "Hotsho—uh—" The voice broke off. "Uh, gladta meetcha, Mr. Kent."
Well, that answered one question, Clark noted. The big bruiser on the left wasn't exactly an intellectual. "Pleased to meet you," he replied courteously, gauging his next movements with great care. This had to be exactly right, because he wouldn't get a second chance.
He moved forward slowly, obviously unsure of his motions. "Mom, where's the chair? I…"
With exquisite artistry, he snagged his toe on the rug and staggered forward into the man who had not spoken, grabbing at him frantically, and then everything dropped into slow motion. One of his hands closed like a vise over the other's gun hand. He squeezed mercilessly. His victim screamed as they pitched sideways into the lap of the seated woman, and there was a heavy thump as the pistol hit the floor. One of his feet shot backwards in a kick that caught the other man's weapon. Clark clearly heard the crunch of bones and winced internally as the thing flew like a bullet across the room; there was a bellow of agony. They crashed on top of the woman, and he heard the metal cylinder strike the rug. Madeline Burns shrieked in combined alarm and fury.
Then his father's voice said, clearly and distinctly, "I've got the can, Clark."
"And I have the gun." Martha's voice sounded grimly triumphant. "Don't any of you move. Jonathan, call the police."
"You don't have to," Clark said. In the distance, he could already hear the sound of the approaching sirens. "Jimmy must have called them. They should be here in a few minutes."
"Her name is Marie Waterford, alias Jenny Barnes, alias Hannah Jackson, alias…you get the drift." Henderson's voice over the speaker phone was its usual dry self. "She's a thirty-nine-year-old, highly skilled con woman who disappeared in late '94 after she killed her third husband."
"*What*?" Lois' voice sounded stunned. "She killed her husband?"
"No, she's killed at least three that we know of. All wealthy. Probably the only reason her current one is still alive is that, as mayor, she couldn't afford to risk it. I wouldn't have bet on his longevity, though. She was convicted and sentenced to die, but she broke out—probably with the help of Intergang, from what we know, now—and apparently died in a car crash in October of '94."
"That may have been the real Madeline Burns," Lois said.
"Probably." Henderson sounded resigned. "We're going to have a lot of details to sort out before this is over."
"The ironic thing," Clark said, after Henderson had hung up, "is that if she'd left Lois alone, no one ever would have caught on."
"I wouldn't say that," Lois said. "We might have."
"That's why she was worried," Perry said. Their editor sounded very smug to Clark's experienced ears. "Man, what a headline! We scooped every newspaper in the City, and our sales are up ten percent over this. Not to mention the questions, the follow-ups…I'm thinkin' a Kerth nomination next time for the pair of you, at the least."
"Thanks, Chief," Lois said. "Oh, I just noticed the time. Clark's got an appointment with his doctor. Then we need to go home and pack. Our flight leaves at six this evening."
"Don't let me keep you," Perry said. "I'll see you two after you get back from your vacation."
It had been a hectic two days since the capture of Madeline Burns. The initial uproar over the arrest of the so-called Mayor had begun to die down, but Lois and Clark still found themselves dodging the occasional tabloid reporter and other members of the press who worked for rival newspapers. Finally, Lois had suggested that they take their previously scheduled and long-postponed vacation to Kansas. They were flying back by actual plane this evening with the elder Kents, as Clark's eyesight, although getting better, had not yet recovered to the point where he completely trusted his ability to get them where they needed to go.
Lois pulled their Jeep out of its parking place by the side of the street and into traffic. Clark could hear vehicles on either side of them and see the indistinct images as they rolled past. He could even see the colors.
"Any more improvement?" Lois asked. She had been asking him that almost every hour on the hour since yesterday when Dr. Klein had determined that the rate of healing seemed to be gradually accelerating.
"A little," he told her, and he could feel a grin that he couldn't resist stretching his lips. "I'm starting to see the brighter colors. "It's coming back, honey. It's really coming back."
"I know. It's a miracle. I almost can't believe we could be that lucky."
"Why not?" he said. "I had the incredible luck to meet and marry you, and now we're having a baby together. If those aren't miracles, I don't know what else to call them. If we could have two miracles, why not three?"
They drove in silence for a short time, Clark concentrating on the images that had been growing steadily more distinct over the last couple of days. In what seemed only a few minutes, they were pulling up to S.T.A.R. Labs.
Dr. Klein was waiting for them, and ushered them quickly into his office. Clark squinted at the blurry, pink patch that was the face of his friend, and Dr. Klein's voice said, "I take it there's been more improvement?"
"He's seeing colors!" Lois said.
"That's a good sign." Clark could hear him open one of the drawers of his desk. "Let me see what's happening here."
Clark removed his glasses to allow the scientist to examine his eyes, then flinched as Dr. Klein snapped on his penlight. "Excellent reaction, Clark! That's very encouraging. Now, hold still and try not to blink…"
The examination took longer this time, because, Clark was sure, Dr. Klein was being as thorough as it was possible for him to be. By the time he finished, Clark knew Lois was almost jumping up and down with impatience.
"Well?" she burst out, at last, "what do you see?"
"The rate of healing still seems to be accelerating," Dr. Klein said, and the note of satisfaction in his voice couldn't be disguised. "If everything keeps going the way it should, Clark's eyes should be back to normal in two or, at the most, three days."
"Yes!" Clark grinned widely at his wife's exclamation. "Thank you, Dr. Klein!"
"Uh, ehem…I really didn't do anything, Lois." Dr. Klein sounded a little flustered. "It's his Kryptonian heritage that saved the day, so to speak."
"And in a few days," Clark said, feeling more optimistic than he had since this whole thing had started, "Superman will really be back."
"Superman was never gone, Clark," Lois said. "With your powers or without them, sighted or blind, you'll always be Superman. I only wish I could make you see that."
"If I may say so," Dr. Klein said, "she's right, Clark. With one caveat."
"What do you mean by that? What 'caveat'?" Clark could literally *hear* Lois bristle. In a way, the days of blindness had taught him a few things. He would never fail to really *listen* again. As he was listening now, even though he had a good idea what Dr. Klein was going to say.
"Just this one." For once, Lois was not rattling Dr. Klein, Clark knew. Maybe because the scientist was as sure of what he was saying as he was of the laws of physics. "Lois, Superman isn't just one man. Superman accomplishes miracles, that's true but, once I realized who he really was, I began to notice something fascinating. Superman was always at his most effective when you were standing behind him. Either as Clark, or in his alter ego, he leans on you, just as you lean on him. Superman, at his very best, is the two of you, together. It's one of the most incredible things I've ever seen."
"Oh." Her voice was suddenly very quiet.
Clark moved to put his arm around her. "He's right, honey. You know he is."
"Of course I am," Dr. Klein said. "Now, before I embarrass all of us further, I think you two have a plane to catch, don't you? You better get going. Besides…" He closed his desk drawer and Clark could hear the key turn in the lock. "I don't want to be late, either."
"Late?' Knowing the man's usual habit of staying at the lab until all hours, Clark couldn't help his surprise.
"Yep." Dr. Klein opened his office door, ushered them out and followed them. "I'm taking a lesson from the two of you. Playing it safe all the time makes life pretty boring, so Carolyn and I have a date this evening. I'm picking her up at six."
As the 737 raced down its runway, three passengers sat together in one row, a lovely woman, a strikingly handsome man, wearing sunglasses, and a little boy, who resembled his father closely, and was strapped into a safety seat. The child's head was already nodding as the plane lifted off and began its climb toward the clouds.
Lois glanced at CJ and smiled, then turned to her husband. "Relax, Clark. I'd think that you, of all people, wouldn't be nervous in a plane."
"That's just it, Lois. A plane just seems…unnatural."
Her hand reached out and closed on his. "In that case, if you're nervous, it gives me a good excuse to hold your hand."
"You don't need an excuse, honey," he said, but it was noticeable that he relaxed visibly at the touch of her fingers.
She interlaced them with his. "Good, because I intend to hold your hand all the way to Kansas, Farmboy. You better get used to it."
He smiled at her in the way that always made her heart flip over. "I already am," he said. "And I'm never going to let go."
Ready for the next story in this series? Read Countdown. Need the previous story? Read Doppleganger.
Stories in Nan Smith's "Dagger" series, in order: Dagger of the Mind, Dagger's Edge, Assassin's Dagger, Doppleganger, Blind Man's Bluff, Countdown, Priorities, Vanishing Act, Charade, Heritage, Unforeseen Consequences, Christmas in Metropolis, Daddy's Little Girl, Suspicions, Mother's Day, A Tasteful Lesson, Too Hot to Handle, The Sting, Consequences, Middle School, and Degrees of Separation